They Might Be Giants
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
If you went to college in a brief span from the late 80’s to the early 90’s, it’s likely that you came across a guy in your dorm who had a stash of Mystery Science Theater 2000 video tapes and a bunch of They Might Be Giants’ cassettes. Whether or not you befriended this character probably reveals how you felt about the odd yet ingratiating ditties concocted by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the braintrust behind TMBG.
For those who were willing to look beyond the nerdy trappings and the self-deprecating band name, there was undeniable pleasure to be had in the mathematical melodies and harmonies that the Johns were peddling. “Ana Ng” and “Birdhouse In Your Soul” weren’t just novelty songs; they were undeniably catchy and funny but they also could sneak up on you with the way they expressed the longings and desires hidden just beneath the wordplay and wisecracks.
Still, even their most ardent admirers from back in the day couldn’t have predicted that They Might Be Giants would still be doing what they do a quarter-century after they started. They’ve never really gone away, and now that pop culture has come back around and brainy is once again cool, a popular resurgence for this one-of-a-kind pair can’t be far behind, right? If so, new album Nanobots will spearhead the charge.
If you’ve lost touch with TMBG in all those years getting jobs and having families, rest assured that nothing has changed in their world. They still craft songs as if they’re assembling a robot, and they make sure to throw so many of these short tracks on the album (25 in 45 minutes) that you’re bound to find a few that will hit the pleasure buttons just like the old days.
There’s “Lost My Mind,” which imagines that the narrator’s disembodied brain has gone on to a life of its own, works in the line “To summarize, this whole planet is elliptical,” and still finds some submerged emotion in the high concept. “Tesla” is an ode to the electricity pioneer (not the hair-rock band, although TMBG could have pulled that off as well,) and it comes off far more heartfelt than ironic.
Some of the songs go on for just a few seconds, a tactic reminiscent of the band’s bite-sized symphony “Fingertips” from 1992’s Apollo 18. Whether you find this an annoying gimmick or a genius, self-aware commentary on the disposability of pop music, you have to give the guys credit for packing a lot of punch into those snippets.
One of the best songs on the album is “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat,” a punchy ode to the triumph of the underdogs in all life’s various confrontations. It’s a fitting summation of They Might Be Giants’ ability to upend expectations for all these years. Wherever that kid from college is these days, he’ll probably have Nanobots in heavy rotation. If only it still came out on cassette.