Category Archives: RECORD REVIEWS

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

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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”

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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.

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”

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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.

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″

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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 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”

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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.

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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