Category Archives: PHONING IT IN

Phoning It In: “Impossibly New”

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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.

Citizens of Dial-A-Song are now living in the post-Glean era, where the fate of each new weekly entry is uncertain, pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs. Wait, what? It’s time to admit that the quality of the weekly songs has exceeded expectations thus far, and some of that could be attributable to inclusion on Glean. That is, TMBG is not in a state of constant studio recording, but laid down a bunch of album tracks and slowly released them. (Which is fine; no criticism there.) What’s left to ponder is the remainder of the year’s songs, where they come from, and where they end up.

“Impossibly New” ambles down the same Appalachian-folk road where we last saw the Handsome Family*, imparting the tale of true believers arriving at a town full of “bitter dudes throwing rocks and flipping birds.” Like previous Dial-A-Song entry “Good To Be Alive,” it’s a refreshing bit of tranquility.

*When we saw them on that road, Brett and Rennie were arguing with each other.

File-A-Song: 8/10

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Phoning It In: “All The Lazy Boyfriends”

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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.

“All The Lazy Boyfriends” wins the award for Song Title Most Likely To Be Mistaken For A Morrissey Song Title.

Glean, TMBG’s new full-length comprising nearly all the 2015 Dial-A-Song entries to date, has now been out more than a week. There’s obviously no need to evaluate the songs themselves (except when I’ve been too pithy with the weekly song reviews, such as the case of this week), but there are broader points to make. To be clear, I’m not about to write a tired eulogy for the album as a complete artistic statement; what bothers me more about modern music consumption is that we’ve all become micromanagers of our collections, playlists and stations. It’s exhausting. The case against hand-selecting single songs for your iPod/phone/whatever isn’t about limiting choice, it’s about relieving the pressure of constantly having to make choices.

File-A-Song: The Dreaded 7/10

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Phoning It In: “Thinking Machine”

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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.

They Might Be Giants have a well-known (in the last decade or so, perhaps even a better-known) side gig as creators of children’s music. As a dad and occasional music critic, I have a lot to say on this subject, but it is fraught with caveats, good intentions, misdemeanors and complications. (The short version: Don’t overthink it. Don’t unnecessarily subject yourself to the Laurie Berkner Band, but dial back on the Fucked Up in front of the kids—eventually they can read your iPod.) The Johns likely have their own complicated take on children’s music, and one of the best things about TMBG is that they have been respectful toward young audiences. It’s a fine line between kids’ musician and birthday party clown.

“Thinking Machine” is the closest thing to a kids’ song yet in the Dial-A-Song universe. It is perfectly silly and rules this particular school.

Next week: We Need To Talk About Glean.

File-A-Song: 9/10

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Phoning It In: “End Of The Rope”

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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.

“End Of The Rope” isn’t an impressive song in the hit-single sense, but it figures to slot nicely into an album (e.g., Glean) because it’s got an interesting instrumental texture and a noirish vibe that has served They Might Be Giants well in the past. I’m thinking of the strong vocal presentation of “Minimum Wage,” for example, which is a dramatic change from the vocal tone elsewhere on Flood. If this seems like a cop-out to reach the milquetoast pastures of 7/10, you’re largely correct. But it could be a game-changer in the context of a playlist later on.

File-A-Song: 7/10

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Phoning It In: “I’m A Coward”

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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.

No, I’m the coward. It’s me. Hiding behind this Chinese wall of WordPress and making some of the weirdest judgments since the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden. “I’m A Coward” isn’t flashy and it’s struggling to be midtempo, but not every TMBG song can bottle the energy of “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Erase,” and there is such a thing as pacing and my soft spot for self-deprecating lyrics. So this week’s entry gets to go above the .500 mark.

In this month’s print issue of MAGNET, which just arrived in my mailbox this week, A.D. Amorosi delivers a fascinating history of the making of TMBG’s breakout album Flood. Two things that made a particular impression after reading it: First, Amorosi points out Linnell’s feel for the unreliable narrator in his lyrics. I tried, less successfully, to get at that point in an early post in this series. Second, producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley went directly from Morrissey’s Bona Drag to Flood. I undoubtedly listened to those two cassettes back-to-back and never got the connection.

File-A-Song: 6/10

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Phoning It In: “Underwater Woman”

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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.

Last week, we learned that They Might Be Giants will release a new full-length, Glean, and it will include “many” of the 2015 Dial-A-Song tracks. We were all set to predict the tracklisting this week, but the internet had other plans. At a glance, we know 10 of the 15 tracks already. It is a sensible lineup, and it leads off with the strongest track (“Erase”). I would’ve put “No Cops” in the first slot, because that’s the only place it could have gone (as it turns out, it does not appear on Glean). The Jonathan Richman cover (“I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar”) was appropriately left out as well. It’s going to be a good album, and the Johns should do whatever they damn well please, and there is no crying in baseball—but if you could cherrypick from a whole year’s worth of Dial-A-Song, a pool of 52 songs, how great could that have been?

The question hangs, and we move on to this week’s entry. Sort of. As I add each weekly track to iTunes, the songs are arranged alphabetically. After listening to “Underwater Woman,” last week’s “Unpronounceable” (rated 5/10 for a perceived 1980s complex) came on, and I realized I was too harsh. It’s more like a 7/10, because it has a good melody. This occurred to me because “Underwater Woman” does not.

File-A-Song: 4/10

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Phoning It In: “Unpronounceable”

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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.

Last week, John Flansburgh announced the April 21 release of a new They Might Be Giants album. It is appropriately titled Glean, as it will include, in Flansburgh’s words, “many of the new dial-a-song tracks … and some other tracks.” Let the speculation about song selection begin: The album will have 15 songs; this week we are on track 10, and by April 21, there will be 15 Dial-A-Song entries. So it’s possible to shuffle the Dial-A-Song deck thus far and roughly create Glean, give or take the few tracks that Flansburgh indicated would be “other.”

Being dispassionate about They Might Be Giants (again, I am not a superfan) has been useful so far in criticizing the weekly song, but that emotional distance is eroding. And so I’m a little disappointed that the album is arriving so soon, because I had my own plans (hey, I didn’t get the Evite to the band meeting) to assemble a Dial-A-Song supermix at midnight on Dec. 31, 2015. Next week, I’ll put together a list of likely and non-likely Glean tracks. Unless TMBG releases the actual track listing in the interim, which will probably happen, because they keep raising the speed limit on the information superhighway.

“Unpronounceable” isn’t unlistenable—it’s just got one ‘80s affectation too many. The bloopy electronics and staccato guitar thing is fine, and evoking the Cars is not a crime, and admittedly the guitar riff also evokes “Ana Ng,” which is classic TMBG from 1988. (A different 1980s, but never mind about that.) Other things pile up, though: the too-heavy vocal echo on the verse, the too-aspirational guitar solo at the two-minute mark. This one isn’t for me, but if you’re the kind of person who owns a Brick, dial away.

File-A-Song: 5/10

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Phoning It In: “It’s Good To Be Alive”

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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.

Is this the first Dial-A-Song 2015 entry to feature the accordion? Maybe—I was only half-listening for it. The accordion practically defined They Might Be Giants in the early years. It was like them and Weird Al had cornered the market, and the association didn’t exactly help TMBG’s cause in the coolness category. (Something the Johns obviously don’t care about but, at some point, I did.)

Coming out of a deep freeze. “It’s Good To Be Alive” sounds effortless, doesn’t really feature all that much accordion in the foreground, and I might be underrating it at music criticism’s most wishy-washy threshold. The dreaded 7/10. Normally an artistic dead zone of begrudging respect and indecision, a borderline in search of a Mario Mendoza to name itself after. Not here: 5/10 is the expected mean score, and once the sample size gets big enough we’ll run some stats and re-calibrate if necessary because I sometimes read too much Grantland.

File-A-Song: 7/10

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Phoning It In: “I Can Help The Next In Line”

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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.

Customer service never sounded so much like a ‘70s porn soundtrack. However, the various elements of “I Can Help The Next In Line” add up to much more than just its squiggly, wah-wah-like sounds. There’s John Linnell’s perfectly bored, resigned singing and an unexpectedly great string-section break that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Plus, songs involving the theme of terrible jobs are usually pretty great vehicles for catharsis or, in this case, some passive-aggressive behavior. It’s a worthy descendent of “Minimum Wage” from Flood, a song whose only lyric is the shouting of its title followed by the crack of a whip.

File-A-Song: 7/10

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Phoning It In: “I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar”

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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.

These things happened, but not in chronological order:

Jonathan Richman writes the song “I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar.”

Frank Black writes the song “The Man Who Was Too Loud” as a tribute to Jonathan Richman.

John Flansburgh directs the video for Frank Black’s “Los Angeles,” and it features a badass hovercraft scene.

Frank Black, under the name Judge Black Francis, judges a video contest for They Might Be Giants’ “Erase,” the strongest 2015 Dial-A-Song entry thus far.

They Might Be Giants covers Jonathan Richman’s “I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar” for Dial-A-Song.

MAGNET doofus gives the TMBG version a 5/10, because it is a good choice for a cover song and the execution is OK—there is really not much anyone could do to improve upon the original, except I have a few terrible ideas:

“I Was Dancing In Dickensian Garb”
“John, I’m Only Dancing In The Lesbian Bar”
“What’d We Stop Here On The Mezzanine For?”

File-A-Song: 5/10

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