They Might Be Giants seemed creatively revitalized with the release of 2011's Join Us, their first set of songs that were aimed at grown-ups -- or at least, that weren't obviously kid-focused -- in some time, and they continue that trend with Nanobots. As on Join Us, John Flansburgh and John Linnell often feel like they're riffing on their extensive discography as they deliver moments of pure comedy like the literal-minded album opener "You're on Fire" and educational tidbits such as the sweet song-biography "Tesla." However, the clearest nod to the duo's past comes in the smattering of songs that clock in between a handful of seconds and just under a minute, echoing They Might Be Giants' Dial-A-Song roots as well as Apollo 18's "Fingertips" suite. Sometimes the fragmented nature these snippets lend to Nanobots provides some short-attention-span instant gratification; at other times, they detract from the longer songs' flow. Yet even with the inclusion of these ultra-short tracks, the album isn't as wacky as Join Us was occasionally. Instead, the Johns opt for a slyer approach, emphasizing clever wordplay on songs like "Icky" and sophisticated arrangements that borrow from lounge, chamber pop, and in the case of "The Darlings of Lumberland," free jazz. Linnell and Flansburgh both contribute several songs worthy of inclusion in the upper echelons of the TMBG songbook. Linnell's "Call You Mom" is the brightest highlight here, and the most adult-oriented, packing layers of twisted and repressed childhood feelings of abandonment and substitution into just over three minutes of sax-heavy rock & roll. He's often at his best when tracing the loopy ways the mind works (or doesn't), and "9 Secret Steps" and "Stuff Is Way" -- a rhythmic word soup that coins the phrase "catastro-feeling good" -- are two fine examples of this. Meanwhile, Flansburgh's "Circular Karate Chop" sets advice from a very warped sensei ("assign regret to those accountable") to some of the duo's quintessentially bouncy power pop; the adorable "Too Tall Girl" manages to be lumbering and graceful as it rhymes "etiquette" with "Connecticut"; and "Sometimes a Lonely Way" serves as a reminder that when this band does sad, it does it like few others can. At times, Nanobots feels like Join Us' more melancholy flip side, and even if this album isn't quite as immediate as the one before it, it shows how They Might Be Giants can continue in the vein they've excelled at for decades and build on it, too.
They Might Be Giants
by Heather Phares