Category Archives: RECORD REVIEWS

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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Record Review: Built To Spill’s “Untethered Moon”

BuiltToSpill

Guitar gymnastics and indie anti-heroism coexist on Built To Spill’s first record in more than six years

Guitars. Epic-length expository essays on the waking dream. Playful Neil Young-register vocals woven together with six-string textures that would be equally at home on a Dino Jr album or an Elliott Smith twilight ballad. Godlike guitar riffage and solos bolting to earth like lightning strikes in a tinder-dry forest. Talking Heads-like angst ladled over tremolo-bent melodies almost comically absurd in their construction. Slop and technical brilliance in equal measure, often nestled side-by-side in the same instrumental passage. Did I mention guitars?

By now, Built To Spill has assembled an eight-album back catalog spanning more than two decades—much of it on a major label, to boot—which zigzags almost effortlessly between spacey six-string sojourns (“Kicked It In The Sun”), sharp indie-rock anti-anthems (“Car”) and whatever it is you’d call the last songs on many of their albums, extended ruminations that essentially defy categorization (“Built Too Long,” “Untrustable,” “Broken Chairs,” “Tomorrow”) and suggest that the band has never had much truck with the machinery of the music biz. But it’s probably been a minute since the last “classic” BTS album—2001’s Ancient Melodies Of The Future comes to mind—and the band has certainly undergone a transformation or two over the course of its years together, morphing into frontman Doug Martsch and whomever he happens to be tracking with at any point in time.

So, let’s start here: Untethered Moon is almost undeniably a classic slice of BTS, but with a twist. You’ve got all the constituent parts present: the bracing call-to-arms opening track (“All Our Songs”), treatises on Martsch’s various dreamstates (“Living Zoo,” “Another Day”), six-string flights of fancy where the vocals and slide lines wrap together and unwind like strands of pipe cleaner (“Some Other Songs”), lyrical trips to the planetary rings where science and art collide (“C.R.E.B.,” which stands for “cAMP response element-binding protein,” the cellular basis for memory formation in the brain—and a nice conceit around which to build lines such as “I never meant to forget you/I always forget people I really like”) and the eight-minute-plus “When I’m Blind,” which closes the LP on about the most discordant note possible, like listening to Strats being ripped apart by a miter saw.

The twist? The pervasive mist of sadness that hangs over the album like a low-altitude cloud layer. For those of you hoping for another epic moment in which Martsch relates that “we’re special in ways that mothers appreciate,” you’ll be waiting a long time for that signature cockeyed humor to make an appearance. Instead, we have Doug in “Wha’ppen?” mode, asking where all his friends all went, why his world is falling apart: how did he get here, exactly? “I’ll be fine in Idaho, America, in the 21st century,” Martsch sings on the album’s opening track. “Oh yeah, that’s right/I’m sure I’ll be just fine.” He doesn’t sound very convinced. But it makes for some of his most compelling music in a decade, all the same.

—Corey duBrowa

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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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Record Review: Modest Mouse’s “Strangers To Ourselves”

ModestMouse

Modest Mouse resurfaces with a flawed twilight opus nonetheless pitch-perfect for our bummed-out times

“I guess I’ll ride this winter out,” sings Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock on “Shit In Your Cut,” one of the many mid-tempo, minor-key tunes that crowd his band’s first album in eight years like so many cattle in a boxcar trundling its way to slaughter. Not that anyone could accuse Brock of having ever traded in Holly Golightly poptunes—the title of his group’s best album, The Moon & Antarctica, is taken from a scene in dystopian epic Blade Runner, while songs such as “Satin In A Coffin,” “Shit Luck” and “Dark Center Of The Universe” have dotted the Modest Mouse discography since it first emerged back in the ’90s.

But there has always been a kind of cockeyed optimism associated with Brock’s worldview—a pinch of sugar (with a dab of acid mixed in for good measure) for every grain of salt; a tendency to see the absurdity of the world just as easily as its many faults—that seems to go missing here, as if winter’s bleak fist has finally caught up with our antihero and knocked him about the playground.

But before you worry that he’s up and gone Ian Curtis on us, consider this: Eight years is an eternity in the world of pop music. Since Brock and company last weighed in, the world has watched the likes of Amy Winehouse (R.I.P.), Lily Allen, Feist and the Lumineers rise and fade—and yet, Modest Mouse has hung on by its whiskers despite a self-imposed hiatus from recording (and, to a certain extent, touring) to pop out its most depressed-sounding work since the aforementioned Antarctica.

It’s almost as if Brock is taking a Sisyphean approach to his craft now—sure, we’ve all been reduced to lone-wolf status (“Coyotes,” which depicts mankind as a pack of “serial killers”), or a cluster of video game-fattened calves marking time in front of the TV Eye (“The Best Room”), a race of heathens designed to get ours, then roam to the scene of the next pillaging (“Lampshades On Fire,” which insists, “We’re the human race/We’re gonna party out this place, then move on”). But on Strangers To Ourselves’ final song (shining, existential epic “Of Course We Know,” a sort of post-apocalyptic “Nights In White Satin”), Brock finally finds the sad-eyed groove he’s been seeking, acknowledging he has “no damn idea what we’re here for” while imploring the almighty to “lay down your own damn soul” as a chorus of Everydudes lifts their voices to the heavens in a vain attempt to get a live signal. It’s a glorious moment.

His band may still periodically sound like a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs (“Sugar Boats”), but even as they struggle to find meaning in existence, Brock and Co. manage to entertain and amuse as often as they don’t. Not bad for a goofy group of grumpy old men, if one does say so himself.

—Corey duBrowa

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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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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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