x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

CD review: Join Us - They Might Be Giants

Despite its geekiness, it is hard not to like TMBG's first album for grown-ups in years.

John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell comprise the pop-rock group They Might Be Giants, specialising in upbeat music with bizarre lyrics.
John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell comprise the pop-rock group They Might Be Giants, specialising in upbeat music with bizarre lyrics.

They Might be Giants
Join Us
(Idlewild)
***

Since around the time that Talking Heads and Devo picked-up guitars, supercharged pop-rock has been as synonymous with geek culture as baking soda-powered volcanoes and false Spock ears. But New York's They Might Be Giants are perhaps more deserving of the "geek rock" handle than any other group.

After forming in the early 1980s, they began communicating with fans over the internet in 1992, back when a single web page could take an hour to materialise and the idea of downloading an entire album seemed light years away. Then in 1999, TMBG became the first group to release a record entirely on MP3 format, followed by a regular podcast in 2005.

But as if their tech obsession weren't enough, the past decade has seen TMBG discover a way of making themselves appear even more uncool. After their screechy anthem Boss of Me became the theme tune to the American family comedy Malcolm in the Middle, the band released a string of children's music albums. Their impossibly enthusiastic titles included Here Come the ABCs and Here Comes Science. But if any of the band's long-standing fans were worried that TMBG had given-up on rock entirely, their fifteenth album, Join Us, provides the answer.

The group's first LP for grown-ups since 2007's The Else is full of the kind of oddball pop-rock for which they are best known. The breezy opener, Can't Keep Johnny Down, has a gorgeous, tumbling keyboard refrain and subdued harmonies, while Celebration and You Probably Get That a Lot both have touches of krautrock. The inevitable comparison with their geek-rock cousins Weezer rears its head on a number of tracks, most notably the chugging Canajoharie.

Several songs on the lengthy 18-track release do depart from the familiar, however. From the barmy sax-drenched Cloisonné - which is partly narrated by a raindrop - to the ska rhythm of When Will You Die and the unsettling duel-vocalled Spoiler Alert, the band seems as musically inventive as ever - even if the invention takes place within a familiar framework.

Alongside the wild jumbling of styles, the album sees the frontmen John Linnell and John Flansburgh on reliably odd form. In keeping with their reputation for bizarre wordplay, the album includes the lines: "Some dude/Hitting golf balls on the moon/Bathroom in his pants/And he thinks he's better than me" - and that's just the opening track.

Although it's refreshing to hear a band who clearly care so little about current musical trends, Join Us feels like an album that would have sounded no different had it been recorded 20 years earlier and TMBG give the impression that they exist behind glass in a laboratory. What's more, Linnell and Flansburgh's unabashed sincerity and joyfulness inevitably begin to grate over the album's ample length.

Although not short on catchy tunes, there's nothing on Join Us that seems destined to score the group a mainstream hit, or lure many new fans. But despite making an album that simply delivers the goods to the group's loyal fan base, there's an uncynical approach to their latest clutch of songs that seems capable of pleasing almost anyone.

It's something that only geeks can get away with.