They Might Be Giants
The Spine (Zoë/Rounder 1041)
Having been a TMBG fan back in the days before "Malcolm in the Middle" and seemingly constant NPR cheerleading brought them into bona fide mainstream prominence, I sometimes forget that the band has now been in their declining years at least as long as they were ever great. As with any artist who stays around for more than 20 years, it's tempting to just hold on to the good records and sweep the more recent ones under the rug.
And it's not altogether unfair to say that the Giants' post-1994 discography has been a complete disappointment, especially compared to the freshness and ingenuity of the first few albums. Each successive release is met with half-hearted apologias from the diehards and dismissive, faint praise from critics. Though their popularity is probably wider now than ever, I find myself harboring something like contempt for their output, as it's just so much predictable shit compared with the genius of stuff like Lincoln.
The good news about The Spine is that it's the most solid and cohesive album John & John have put out since John Henry. There are no irritating or misguided songs, the production is clean and poppin', and while there's not much that departs from the usual TMBG formula, at least it's an inspired set. And at 36 minutes, The Spine doesn't overstay its welcome.
Linnell contributes the requisite hyper-pop single ("Experimental Film") and a pseudo-psychedelic song ("Wearing a Raincoat") almost worthy of Andy Partridge. But we know that Linnell can be counted on for the good stuff. Interestingly, Mssr. Flansburgh breaks out of his lame-duck role with some of the album's best tracks: the infectious "Damn Good Times," the surprisingly touching "Memo to Human Resources," and the damn funny, druggy "It's Kickin' In." Even his lower-caliber stuff here, like "Prevenge," manages to stay quite a ways away of that miserably smug posturing that sunk stuff like "S-E-X-X-Y."
The clear high point for me is Linnell's "Bastard Wants to Hit Me," which utilizes that Cher "Believe" vocoder-ish approach in a dancey, electronic pop arrangement with sweetly sensitive lyrics about fearing a fistfight pretty fuckin' great, and something of a fresh avenue for the band.
The bulk of the rest is pleasant and mostly forgettable, but I'm just glad that it doesn't suck, you know? And even more glad that it's not a fucking kids' record. The Spine is very nearly a return to form, or at least a totally respectable latter-career record from a band that probably should have stopped at album #5.
Review by Savage Pampas