Category Archives: PHONING IT IN

Phoning It In: “What Did I Do To You?” “Definition of Good,” “Trouble Awful Devil Evil”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

Weekly email notifications of new Dial-A-Song entries have begun to take on a hectoring tone as the posts again fail to keep pace with the song production. You win, Johns. But let this colder air steel my spirits. Let’s get industrious.

“What Did I Do To You?” is arguably the best song about phantom limbs since the Shins’ “Phantom Limb.” What sheltered microcosm allows that sentence to be typed and published, I can’t bear to ponder. More interesting is “Definition Of Good,” which is one puzzle piece away from being a great song. The vocal melody has to switch up at some point (it’s kind of like the Peyton Manning “Nationwide is on your side” commercial*) and surely something could be done about the vocal pacing, which leaves all kinds of uncomfortable pauses at the end of lines. There’s still something very likeable about this song, though, which gives rise to this week’s Insane And Unsolicited Advice: Make another version of “Definition Of Good” with different vocals. As we wonder whether the protagonist of “Trouble Awful Devil Evil” was bitten by a vampire or simply fell into a bottomless pit (a conundrum that’s dogged all our families for generations), it’s worth noting that it’s a very good song.

And with that astute criticism, let’s round up the post-Glean winners. These are songs worth downloading for 99 cents or whatever. Ranked in order of recollection:

“And Mom And Kid”
“Aaa”
“Impossibly New”
“I Am Invisible”
“Rock Club”
“I Made A Mess”
“Trouble Awful Devil Evil”

*There’s a moment in one of those commercials when Manning is regarding a bobblehead version of himself and he intones, “Do I really look like that?” There is something very sad about it. It’s like a Smiths song.

File-A-Song:
“What Did I Do To You?”: 4
“Definition Of Good”: 6
“Trouble Awful Devil Evil”: 7

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Phoning It In: “Omnicorn,” “Another Weirdo,” “I Made A Mess”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

Everybody knows that unicorns are jerks, so the invention of the omnicorn is most welcome here in this pep song for a creature with every type of horn. (Bronies identify the omnicorn as a different type of horned creature that you can read about if you like to use Google. Also, bronies are adult male My Little Pony fans. Who are the judges of reality now? I ask you.)

“Another Weirdo” is an instrumental with pleasant saxophone but doesn’t warrant further analysis because covers and instrumentals (and, heaven forbid, spoken word) are not as interesting. Which swiftly brings us to “I Made A Mess”: It’s the winner of the three. The song’s vocal melody climbs along with the hysteria associated with the titular mess until it bottoms out. That’s how messes work.

The staleness of this exercise has not escaped me. It is Week 34. Walter Payton week. That’s why we’re introducing an exciting new feature to Phoning It In. It’s called “Insane And Unsolicited Advice To They Might Be Giants.” This week’s advice? Add a third John to the band. I mean, if the Ramones could find that many band members with the surname “Ramone,” it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a third, fifth or seventh John.

File-A-Song:
“Ominicorn”: 7/10
“Another Weirdo”: 4/10
“I Made A Mess”: 8/10

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Phoning It In: “Walking My Cat Named Dog” And “I Haven’t Seen You In Forever”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

The summer slide continues at Phoning It In, as we skipped last week. Rarely has the absence of so little effort been so well documented as it is here. Musically, “Walking My Cat Named Dog” walks around San Francisco in 1968. The problem there being that walking a cat named Dog isn’t even weird enough for the hippies and burnouts to notice.

The almost a cappella “I Haven’t Seen You In Forever” (there is some percussion) is a prime candidate for Song I May Not Listen To Again After This. Its conceit is interesting enough: the cruel cycle of longing/rejection. Maybe it’s the a cappella thing, or some problem I have with choirs and choruses that can’t be solved with quiet reflection. Never had a problem with Robyn Hitchcock’s “Uncorrected Personality Traits,” though.

Fun Fact: Both of these songs clock in at 2:12. Coincidence? I think not. They will receive the same rating, too.

File-A-Song
“Walking My Cat Named Dog”: 3/10
“I Haven’t Seen You In Forever”: 3/10

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Phoning It In: “Rock Club”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

In 2009, John Flansburgh was on This American Life (listen here or, if you’re a freak like me, read the transcript) explaining a thing or two about contract riders. Flansburgh and Ira Glass get to the bottom of the Van Halen brown M&Ms clause, and the conversation is brief but pretty great. “Rock Club” is a sidelong look at the fatigue and absurdity that results from being a touring musician for decades. (It’s also just a song about shitty rock clubs.) It has a vaguely “Freebird” acoustic strum, and that’s possibly intentional.

File-A-Song: 8/10

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Phoning It In: “The Velvet Ape” and “I Am Invisible”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

Clearly, Phoning It In is on a summer schedule. Which is a total cop-out for nobody minding the store. What is this, Europe?

On the other hand, why does publishing dictate the rigor of a daily/weekly/monthly product? Obviously, hard news outlets benefit. For the rest of us, it’s filling up an empty garbage bag with other garbage bags during the slow times. Can you imagine being a sportswriter and having to slobber over the NBA Summer League? Why doesn’t Premiere magazine publish eight issues a week during blockbuster season? I’d like to get four New Yorkers in one day if it pleases David Sedaris, then wait three months for the next one. What happens when the album-release schedule looks thin in January? You get shoegaze retrospectives and stuff like this. Don’t you like shoegaze? Only Bob Ross paints a picture on the clock. Real creative life gets one of those melting-hand clocks, and childhood and recess and pool parties are fast and slow at the same time. Who’s to argue that time is more subjective than the duration of the Earth circling the sun? Who has taken up that (insane, anthropocentric) mantle?

That was weird. So much weirder than criticizing songs on the internet under my own name. “The Velvet Ape” is interesting—it’s either about a pillow fight or the seductive evil of ’70s soft rock—but you can’t convince me it’s a good song, or one that rewards multiple listens. “I Am Invisible,” however, is the first winner of Dial-A-Song’s second half. It has momentum and melody and tackles the tough questions about invisible men: issues with the digestive tract, practical joke ideas, etc. It’s smart and funny. This morning, I passed a woman on the street wearing a T-shirt with the word “meh” printed on it. This is our culture of humor now. If you are that woman, please just wear a plain T-shirt next time.

File-A-Song
“The Velvet Ape”: 3/10
“I Am Invisible”: 9/10

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Phoning It In: “Summer Breeze,” “Bills, Bills, Bills” And “And Mom And Kid”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

I wasn’t missing it. I wasn’t listening. I turned away when I heard them say, “It’s Dial-A-Song.” I always had my doubts, so I just tuned it out. I didn’t know why they had to crow about Dial-A-Song …

Yes, it’s been more than three weeks since we last Phoned It In. The TMBG lyrics above (from the 2015 teaser song “I Wasn’t Listening”) aren’t exactly an accurate portrayal of a prevailing attitude toward Dial-A-Song, but there is some fatigue. The good news is that we have now reached Week 26, and by my math, that’s the halfway point. We have some statistics to look at and arguments to start and feelings to hurt.

A brief diversion: At one point, I considered turning this enterprise into a long-term parody of advanced sports metrics by inventing statistical measures such as SAR (Sings Above Replacement), NFPS (Normalized Flansburgh Per Song) and pythagorean expectation to rock. Each week would become a more ridiculous accounting of performance, straying ever farther from what little aesthetic pleasure remains in music criticism. I’d make some tight infographics. The idea was scotched for two reasons: 1) It’s a long con; 2) The stats inevitably served to pit the Johns against one another (n=2), and that didn’t seem cool. (Not that anything else around here is cool, either.) Someone else please do this, though. To quote David Brent, “A good idea is a good idea forever.”

You know what’s not a good idea? (Aside from that too-obvious segue?) Cramming a short story about a ghost car into a song, as happens with “The Summer Breeze.” The Destiny’s Child cover (“Bills, Bills, Bills”) left me slightly cold, too. It’s angsty, but not in a fun way. Fortunately, “And Mom And Kid,” written for an HBO documentary celebrating family diversity, is both historically timely and impressive in its compactness and charm.

File-A-Song
“The Summer Breeze”: 2
“Bills, Bills, Bills”: 4
“And Mom And Kid”: 9

And now for the 2015 Dial-A-Song midterm report:

tmbg_midterm

Average File-A-Song rating: 5.92

Dial-A-Song Top Superhits (Score of 9 or more): “Erase,” “Thinking Machine,” “And Mom And Kid”

Complete Breakdown:

tmbg_scores

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Phoning It In: “Hello Mrs. Wheelyke”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

The phrase “too clever by half” comes to mind. Google the lyrics to “Hello Mrs. Wheelyke” and you’ll see how the Johns have stuffed two sets of lyrics into one song. And that’s kind of the problem. I love clever, wordy songs; but it’s best when those lyrical devices sneak up on you after you’re already into the music.

File-A-Song:
I don’t care/4
this/1
time/2
go!

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Phoning It In: “Sold My Mind To The Kremlin”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

“Sold My Mind To The Kremlin” is the most 1980s of all Dial-A-Song entries. I’m pretty sure it can’t get more referential to that decade than this. Parse the lyrics, and it reads like a David Lynch treatment of Rocky IV—in which Stallone becomes disillusioned by American pop culture after the death of Apollo Creed and becomes a KGB operative on a murky, mind-controlled mission at the height of the Cold War. Bonkers scenarios aside, there is not much to recommend this song. It isn’t the Magnetic Fields-style ’80s bedroom synth of “All The Lazy Boyfriends,” and it isn’t the Cars-like ’80s guitar gloss of “Unpronounceable.” Instead, “Kremlin” is overly robotic. Look, I found a video of Dolph Lundgren dancing and singing.

File-A-Song: 3/10 

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Phoning It In: “Aaa”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

“Aaa” hits the ground running and doesn’t slow down, embracing the thrill of the chase. Uncovering frightening truths, the madness behind human curiosity—that’s what “Aaa” is getting at (and simultaneously running from). “Aaa” is not about roadside assistance; you’re thinking of another thing. There’s a lot of things about Dial-A-Song you don’t know anything about. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.

File-A-Song: 8/10

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Phoning It In: “ECNALUBMA” And “Starry Eyes”

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They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

After 19 consecutive weeks of posting Phoning It In, we finally got our own category on the MAGNET site, and then … we miss a week. (Who is this “we”? It’s just me. Fritch. Army of one. Deflecting blame.)  This week, then, it’s a Dial-A-Song double shot. Which is fitting, because these two tracks play like the A-side and B-side of a single. A single that doesn’t chart very well.

“ECNALUBMA” is “ambulance” spelled backward. The song has an odd momentum, aided by skittering horns and drums, but it never seems to reach its destination. Cover songs are at an automatic disadvantage; “Starry Eyes” by ’70s power-pop band the Records is a fine choice but doesn’t have the sneery British accent of the original. Credit is due, I suppose, for the Johns not attempting a British accent.

File-A-Song (“ECNALUBMA”): 5/10

File-A-Song (“Starry Eyes”): 4/10

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