Aligning TMBG’s The Spine

They Might Be Giants isn’t what you would call a jam band, but like Phish (may they rest in peace), I’ve come to gauge their strength and direction by their live performances, not their albums. Between those shows and the band’s side projects, quirky experiments, and ongoing music delivery in the form of Dial-A-Song and TMBG Radio, their actual studio releases have almost come to seem like an afterthought. If all they did was continue to offer serviceable, adequate collections of tunes every few years, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing as long as the fruits of their real energy continued to be evident once or twice a year at the 9:30 Club.

“The thing that irks me about The Spine, their latest album, is that it’s serviceable and adequate, but could have been so much more.” That’s what I wrote a week ago, before picking up on the review again today after a fresh listen. And, surprise surprise, the dang thing has grown on me. Frank Blank describes the process well in Gigantic: when he first heard Flood, he thought it was just OK, but then one day in the car, its pure genius reached up and swatted him across the head. The Spine isn’t pure genius, but it’s a solid offering that’s a couple notches above 2001’s Mink Car. (I won’t presume to officially place it in my hierarchy until it’s had a year or so to percolate.)

If Mink Car was a pale shadow of Flood, then The Spine is a respectable shadow of Lincoln. It has that album’s propensity—even more than your average TMBG song—for existential despair masked in, and somehow redeemed by, catchy licks and an irrepressively bouncy spirit. This is from “Stalk of Wheat”:

And I was out of ideas like I is like I is
Like I is, like I is, I was out of ideas

I once had a dream of a gleam in my eye
And I’ll have it till the day I die
I had a thought bubble of trouble and strife
And it lasted for the rest of my life

That’s not quite so witty or incisive as this bit from Lincoln . . .

Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders
What the part that isn’t thinking isn’t thinking of
Should you worry when the skullhead is in front of you
Or is it worse because it’s always waiting where your eyes don’t go?

. . . but it’s definitely the same flavor.

The Spine is too short, by far. Thirty-six minutes for sixteen tracks isn’t anything unusual for a Giants album, but in this case many of the songs are meant to go longer. “Damn Good Times” is a frenetically peppy, absolutely delicious dance number (and Ella favorite) that is cruelly held to a mere two and a half minutes, and its high-energy counterpart, “It’s Kickin’ In,” is whittled down to only two. Meanwhile a middling number with substandard lyrics like “Wearing a Raincoat” lingers on past the three-minute mark.

At least the album’s best song, “Museum of Idiots,” is one of the longer ones. It’s track number nine, for those of you prone to trying it out in the music store, and if you don’t groove on that lovely lift when the horns kick in, I don’t know what to do with you. Other standouts include the opener, “Experimental Film” (whose video is animated by the mad geniuses of Homestar Runner) and “Thunderbird.” The two skippable tracks, “Bastard Wants to Hit Me” and “The World Before Later On,” bog down the middle of the album.

With the exception of the unexpected glee of those horns on “Museum of Idiots,” there’s not a lot that’s remarkable about the arrangements of these tunes. It’s TMBG, so they’re full of whistles, bells, and shameless experimentation in a variety of genres, but the instrumentation is mostly straight-up guitar work without the added punch of Linnell’s accordion or saxophone.

But there’s an up-side to that: these songs are going to rock when played live. The short ones will get their length, the lackluster ones will get their energy, and it’ll all come together in what I’m sure is going to be an absolutely splendid show that’ll be coming to my hometown in two days . . .

. . . at which point I will still be in Michigan. Ah well. They’ll be back.