Category Archives: RECORD REVIEWS

Phoning It In: “Answer”

TMBG

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.

You can’t always get what you want—this has been especially true during the underwhelming last couple of weeks of Dial-A-Song. It is also the theme put forth in the lyrics of “Answer,” which is, in fact, exactly what I want: They Might Be Giants being dark, funny, absurd and paranoid in a catchy guitar-pop song with punched-up vocal harmonies on the chorus.

Sated by this entry and lulled into a contented state of being, let me attempt to bolster my street cred with you people. I interviewed John Linnell for this very site in 2009, on the occasion of TMBG releasing Science Is Real, an educational children’s album of songs about science. The best song on that album is called “Meet The Elements,” which is transcendent enough of its milieu that it is sometimes played out of earshot of my six-year-old.

File-A-Song: 8/10

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Phoning It In: “Hate The Villanelle”

TMBG

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.

This week’s song finds They Might Be Giants raging against restrictive poetic forms with synthesizers and a sense of dynamics that are reminiscent of Roxy Music. Now I’m loading one bullet into the chamber of a gun and contemplating the sequence of events that led to that last sentence, the degradation of human thought, the end of music criticism as an image of the Great Serpent eating itself, the self-pranking indignity in acknowledgment of such a thing, the rat’s errand not to escape the maze but to fill it with words, dying lonely, the terror when you peer into the endless, black gaping maw of Dial-A-Song.

One of the weaker songs so far. In an earlier post I asserted that I could tell the difference between John Flansburgh and John Linnell. It is not, in fact, so easy to distinguish their singing voices. This is one of my very favorite things to find on the internet (my other “very favorite” things include celebrity casserole recipes and grammar blogs). It’s a Rosetta Stone, in the form of a 1996 .txt file written by a student at the University of Minnesota. It’s perfect. This document being 19 years old, however, doesn’t have anything to tell us about “Hate The Villanelle.” I’m pretty sure it’s sung by Flansburgh.

The point of this digression is to determine whether I have a preference for the Linnell-sung tracks over the Flansburgh-sung ones, or vice versa. It’s inconclusive—while Linnell is the lead vocal on time-worn favorites (“Ana Ng,” “They’ll Need A Crane,” “Birdhouse In Your Soul”) as well as the excellent new “Erase,” there are clunkers in there, too. And Flansburgh sounds great on what’s arguably TMBG’s best-known song, “Boss Of Me.” Tell you what—at the end of this thing, in December 2015, I will produce a .txt file in the exact style of the University of Minnesota document, detailing the “who sings what” for Dial-A-Song 2015.

File-A-Song: 3/10

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Phoning It In: “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2″

TMBG

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 don’t usually watch the videos that accompany the songs posted on dialasong.com, but for whatever reason my eyes stayed glued to the animation accompanying “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2.” The loopy, old-timey/surrealist cartoon (I am sure there are stylistic reference points for it, but I am not familiar with them because I am an adult) fits nicely with the song’s Middle Eastern woodwind-y first half of the song, which plays out like a chase scene. The second half of the song switches into another gear that I won’t describe because it would sound terrible, and it isn’t. I might’ve used the word “ska” in that description.

Maybe this song’s theme has been explored by TMBG elsewhere, perhaps in 2002 documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)–which I haven’t seen–but I think it’s about how being in a band is like being in jail with your bandmate(s). The Johns are now going on 33 years of being cellmates. Sure, each one could go solo (likely with less commercial success), but even then, that’s like transferring to another jail. I remember reading an article on Mudhoney a while ago (possibly in MAGNET), in which one of the bandmembers (possibly Mark Arm) lamented the nature of a career in music, and specifically what happens when it comes to an end: What do you put on a resumé when you’ve spent the last 20 years playing in a rock band?

The music industry is used to that kind of scrutiny. But it’s just as true that most of us are in some type of work jail (the documentary about this is called The Office) and to continue down this road of thought any further will make me George Carlin. I am not George Carlin.

File-A-Song: 8/10

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Phoning It In: “No Cops”

TMBG

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.

This week’s song, “No Cops,” is not sung by John Flansburgh or John Linnell. “No Cops” is sung by a person who goes by the name Corn Mo. Please excuse me while I wash my hands and disinfect my keyboard after having to type the disgusting, disagreeable combination of words that is “Corn Mo.”

The aforementioned vocalist is kind of like They Might Be Giants’ own version of the Magnetic Fields’ LD Beghtol. And “No Cops” is similar to “Theme From Flood”—self-referential and probably best placed at the beginning of an ostensible year-in-the-making 52-track album. (Notably, that’s still 17 tracks shy of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.) The song therefore has a purpose in the context of a Dial-A-Song playlist. Its central conceit—that the audience is about to be trapped in the concert venue with  a sinister TMBG—is just dark enough to put this over the .500 mark.

File-A-Song: 6/10

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Phoning It In: “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel”

TMBG

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.

There might be a fan club. A secret They Might Be Giants fan club that I’m forbidden to acknowledge. I am also compelled to frame just how unlikely it is that I would belong to such an organization in the first place, not being a natural joiner in any way, nor a particularly acute “fan” of TMBG in the sense of being fanatical. But let’s suppose this fan club offered an insanely good deal, an exchange of money for material goods that ultimately led me here, to these reviews. Does a secret They Might Be Giants fan club exist?  Oh, I don’t know. You must be thinking of some other band.

If you’d rather shoot a woman than a man, this is the song for you! “Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel” is the sum of its title and its McCartneyed piano/drums instrumentation. It’s a bit of a comedown from last week’s high-energy “Erase,” bordering on lassitude; trim the song in half and it would be an excellent snippet in the larger context of an album. “Madam” has a tough time standing on its own. Instead of further dissection, let’s remember another song about dueling, “Glove Slap,” from maybe the greatest Simpsons episode ever.

Important Update: All ratings will now appear at the end of the review under the “File-A-Song” designation. I know! I just thought of it.

File-A-Song: 5/10

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Phoning It In: “Erase”

TMBG

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.

Let’s abort this whole thing and start reviewing movie trailers. Because that’s essentially what happened last week, with the critique of what now appears to be a teaser track in the 2015 Dial-A-Song campaign. It turns out “Got Getting Up So Down” and another short track, “I Wasn’t Listening,” were late-2014 appetizers for the real thing. So eliminate those two songs from the canon, and realize there may be 53 posts in this series. Welcome to Dial-A-Song’s terrifying new math.

Everything in “Erase” starts off staccato—the drums, guitars, John Linnell’s vocals—but the song has two other gears, both of which are extremely rewarding, chorus-y bits of vocal harmony. (Diversion for a future post: analysis of the two Johns’ vocal harmonies.) The subject matter of “Erase” reminds me of “They’ll Need A Crane” from 1988’s Lincoln: In relationships, especially toward the end, people do and say and think terrible things they regret forever. In both songs, the singer is addressing the other person in the relationship, and Linnell is great at writing self-aware bits of the conversation.

From “They’ll Need A Crane”:
“And there’s a restaurant we should check out where the other nightmare people like to go/I mean nice people, baby wait, I didn’t mean to say nightmare.”

From “Erase”:
“Think of this as solving problems that should never have occurred/Please don’t call it strangulation, that is such an ugly word.”

The bar has been set high. Should there be a rating system? Fine. 0-10, with 0 being terrible and 10 being “the best I think They Might Be Giants can get.” Because there are no external forces, only Dial-A-Song. “Erase” is a 9/10. And that is a blue swatch on a field of blue at this point. As such, all ratings are subject to adjustment and recalibration until Dec. 31, 2015.

It appears TMBG are posting a new song each Wednesday. These posts will appear on Wednesdays, too, reviewing the previous week’s song.

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Phoning It In: “Got Getting Up So Down”

TMBG

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.

What’s up, music website readers? This is the exposition. Please refer to the exposition before commenting in October 2015 that I don’t know Flansburgh from Linnell, Flood from Lincoln. Actually, I do know those things, but my point is that I am not a They Might Be Giants superfan. More on that in later posts. A few years ago on this site, I wrote 120 posts about music videos from the golden era of MTV’s 120 Minutes; before that, I wrote a weekly series of posts about The Best Show On WFMU that didn’t last too long because it was killing the thing that I loved; and more recently I attempted a year-long, multi-part review of a depressing Flaming Lips album that I felt was misunderstood. I’m Sarah Koenig, and this is Serial.

Some housekeeping items before we begin. Item number one: Just because we’re entering a long-term relationship with TMBG’s music, these will be objective, critical reviews. Item number two: As far as I can tell, all the songs will be streaming and archived for free at www.dialasong.com. Go make your own opinions. I cannot help you download a Flash update.

OK, enough of that. On to the review. Wakeup anthem “Got Getting Up So Down” might be the music in a commercial for Papa John’s Kale-n-Chorizo Breakfast Jammers. It might be running through my head on future mornings while my fingers try to separate a coffee filter from the impossible stack of stuck-together coffee filters. Flansburgh recites some morning-routine lyrics over a spy-movie synth-bass line. This song is too literal and purposeful. I wonder if these are all going to be two-minute ditties, in which case I’m not sure that will create the requisite emotional resonance for long-term listening investment. It’s early. This is only 1.9 percent of the year’s projected output, or one playing card in a game of solitaire. In the just-invented Solitaire-Based Music Rating System, we deal “Got Getting Up So Down” a six of clubs.

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Record Review: Anders Parker “There’s A Bluebird In My Heart”

AndersParker

Anders Parker flexes all of his considerable creative muscles with his latest—and perhaps best—solo album.

Looking back over the breadth of Anders Parker’s two-decade career, there is little he has yet to accomplish or prove. The stylistic range encompassed by his Varnaline work alone is evidence of Parker’s determination to explore, illuminate, absorb and transcend every musical influence he’s experienced, from alt-country and raw folk to pastoral Americana and baroque art rock. And Parker’s catalog under his own name has been equally diverse, be it the transitional familiarity of 2004’s Tell It To The Dust or the ambient instrumental guitar wash of 2010’s Cross Latitudes. Throw in his recent pairing with Mascott/Sparklehorse multi-instrumentalist and longtime cohort Kendall Meade, and you’ve got an impressive and intimidating curriculum vitae.

Parker’s latest contribution is a welcome return to his Varnaline/early-solo sound, perhaps in reaction to his recent experimental streak. Opener “The Road” is a visceral eight-minute core sample of Parker’s most closely held inspirations, starting in a soulful pop vein and careening to a blistering Crazy Horse conclusion, while “Animals” cross-pollinates Parker’s Youngian love of twang bar blues with a stomp-and-holler ethic that could be mistaken for Jack White. Parker is equally comfortable with the kind of quiet intensity that can be as unnerving as it is soothing (“Unspoken,” “Don’t Let The Darkness In”), then counterpoints it with the epic and nearly prog-paced roar of the exquisitely titled “Jackbooted Thugs (Have All The Best Drugs).” After several years of wandering in the sonic wilderness, Parker has returned to his roots with a velvet-fisted vengeance.

—Brian Baker

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The Flaming Lips Almost Killed Me: Reign Of Terror

FlamingLips

Will repeated listening to the Flaming Lips‘ dark, depressing and intense new album drive you insane? MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch aims to find out. Welcome to the Terrordome.

As should be obvious by the gaping chasm between posts in this purportedly regular series, The Terror is over (if you want it). Reviewing The Terror for weeks on end didn’t exactly kill my enthusiasm for the album, but it didn’t intensify it, either. Being on the receding limb of musical enjoyment isn’t much fun; it was time to put the Flaming Lips away for a while. Besides, there’s a new Bill Callahan album to obsess over—that guy has been killing it for the last four LPs, by the way.

In my first post, I promised a hastily conceived infographic, and I will keep that promise. The visual interpretation of “You Lust” below is not only hastily conceived but also poorly executed. There’s not even a legend or key, so just know that this maps out every time the jarring “lust to succeed” sequence happens (represented by the Swami head) and highlights that long middle section where I forget what happens.

YouLust

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Record Review: Nirvana “In Utero (20th Anniversary Edition)”

Nirvana

Twenty years later, In Utero reigns as Nirvana’s poetic, grimy apex

It’s always the question with Nirvana, the most important band in the history of alternative rock save for only possibly the Velvet Underground: What’s left to say? Now documented and immortalized with its third boxed set, the band’s studio swan song was the ultimate follow-up, with Steve Albini on hand to destroy the pop goodwill Nevermind’s runaway success imbued the trio with for David Geffen, and such agreeable titles as “Rape Me” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” to greet program directors previously besotted with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We know In Utero turned out to be anything but poisonous commercially, with the string of “Heart-Shaped Box,” “All Apologies” and “Dumb” ensuring this wasn’t the Bad to Nevermind’s Thriller.

On In Utero, Kurt Cobain’s lyrics opened up like never before, nearly as poetry when he sang of a “Leonard Cohen afterworld” or an “umbilical noose,” but also developing his keen obsession with femininity, from themes of childbirth and the female anatomy (“Pennyroyal Tea” was selected as a subject for its assistance in inducing abortion) that extended to the famous album artwork, as well as bringing Cobain’s feminism to the forefront. (“Rape Me” was a chilling protest, a martyr plea from a privileged white male to unload some of the burden of women’s collective fear and pain.)

What this two-decades-on look back opens up is not how abrasive the album was, but rather how subtly its melodic foundation supported its thrashy intentions, especially on the “Live And Loud” disc from a 1993 concert that showcased new vistas in the backing harmonies of “Sliver” and “Pennyroyal Tea” and eschewed album thrashers like “Very Ape” and “Tourette’s” in favor of an earlier, electric take on Bowie’s delicate “The Man Who Sold The World” before the definitive Unplugged performance, veering pop-friendly on typical selections like “Drain You” and “About A Girl,” and only going off the grid for the brutal bookends of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and blinding mess “Endless, Nameless.” The well-known b-sides now collected in one place (“Moist Vagina,” “Sappy,” “I Hate Myself And Want To Die” and Dave Grohl’s “Marigold”) comprise a strong EP with completely unreleased, surfy jam “Forgotten Tune”; only the debris-like “Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through The Strip” fails to create a context for itself.

Then you have alternate mixes that grow confusing, from Albini and Scott Litt’s original treatments of tunes that now have alternate choices, to mysterious “2013” mixes meant to simulate something not very distinct from the finished album at all, to the decidedly un-illuminating LP demos (unless you really need to know how much distortion was originally called upon for “Scentless Apprentice”). Diehards and students of audio recording will certainly be able to identify the here-and-there tidbits of difference between these warehouse-cleaning takes. Since most people can make do with the excellent new live set, and it only comes with the triple-disc option, spring for the separate DVD. The album proper already excellently spoke for itself 20 years ago.

—Dan Weiss

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