They Might Be Giants
Back to Skull (Elektra 66198)
Remember when every fall or so, there'd be a new Giants album on the way and there would be that moment when you'd hear the new single for the first time? Maybe it was on "120 Minutes," and you were trying to absorb all the ingenuity and subtlety in the space of three minutes during the world premiere of the video.
Or perhaps you caught the last minute of it on the car radio and felt hollow and unfinished for the rest of the day. Often, it would be the day the CD single showed up at your record store haunt. Scurrying home in eager anticipation, you'd put on the disc and prepare yourself to be unprepared for what new thing they would do.
Oh, so that was just me? So I'm a big nerd. For years, a new TMBG single was a guaranteed good experience for me that era may be over, but at least now I can share my nostalgia with the world thanks to the Internet. Back to Skull arrived in advance of the eagerly-anticipated John Henry album in 1994, wisely coinciding with the beginning of the school year so myself and countless other smug smart-ass college kids could have our TMBG fix on campus.
"Snail Shell" is track one and the lead-off single from John Henry, and it was kinda shocking at the time. TMBG hadn't ever really rocked out, and suddenly here they were, suddenly with balls. Still a great song. Now that I think of it, I may have heard the song in concert before this EP came out, but the recording was no less impressive when I cracked it open for the first listen.
Flansburgh weighs in with "Ondine" as track two, one of the more genuinely forgettable TMBG songs, sorry John. Track three, on the other hand, is one of the most brilliant songs they've yet done: "She Was a Hotel Detective," and it's a different "She Was a Hotel Detective" than the "(She Was a) Hotel Detective" found on TMBG's first album. The new one is utterly unlike anything they've ever done, featuring disco strings, a Billy Joel chorus, and some R&B falsetto. I still get a kick out of it, and I love the idea of a band taking another stab at a song title that they'd already made famous. (Well, famous in the context of They Might Be Giants anyway.)
Track four is "Mrs. Train," an intentionally annoying song hinging on the expected speed-up-like-a-train gimmick, and now as then seems like a smart-alecky throwback to "Particle Man." Not Linnell's finest hour. The EP closes with a Dust Brothers remix of "Snail Shell," which while it is not Beck, is not Hanson either. (I'm not sure where the compliment was and where the insult was in that statement.)
They hadn't gone overboard yet, but they were fragmenting. I guess ultimately all things end up frittering away if they stay around long enough (fill in "Coach" joke here). Still, a fine EP in the Giants canon, and surprisingly long at 15 minutes.
Review by Pepito Peppitone