They Might Be Giants have never been known for churning out hits, and yet, have often found themselves with a loyal cult audience and record company support. It’s also hard to believe that – taking on board their sideline in making albums for children – 2013’s ‘Nanobots’ is their sixteenth album. Their first to be released on the power pop label Lojinx in the UK/Europe, does such an association mean the music has shifted farther towards the kind of music often released via that label? No. Is there an obvious hit single among its staggering twenty five tracks? As with most TMBG releases there are a couple of contenders, though as always, the most commercial moments aren’t necessarily the most captivating.
Shifting effortlessly between new wave quirks, electronic experiments, classic pop, seventies freakouts and just plain novelty, ‘Nanobots’ is an album which has so many layers and so many oblique lyrics, it’s almost impossible to take it all in during one sitting. What’s impressive is the fact that although TMBG have never really changed their sound too much since the beginning – even by ditching the drum machine and hiring a real band somewhere en route – the two Johns (Linnell & Flansburgh) do not sound like they’re ever going through the motions here. There’s an instant familiarity, sure – something led by John Linnell’s nasal delivery is always gonna be quickly recognisable – but musically, ‘Nanobots’ brings the world far more than recycled and safe ideas. Via its various hook filled new wave oddities, accordion-tinged pop gems, various segues and half-formed oddball nuggets, there’s as much a sense of two guys feeling their way around as there is a feeling of actual comfort.
Right from the off, there’s a sense that TMBG have a treat in store for us. In brilliant Linnell style, ‘You’re On Fire’ smashes new wave bonkersness with pure pop loveliness, resulting in ear-testing brilliance. Atop a guitar part bouncing between the left and right speaker channels, this tune is TMBG at their best – accessible, yet just odd enough to be off-putting to the unenlightened. A hook is fashioned from a typically un-hooky lyric (“Combustible head! Combustible head!”), but somehow made more palatable by the inclusion of female backing vocals in a particularly 1970s style; the kind you might find pepping up a Bryan Ferry elpee. Equally special, ‘Stone Cold Coup d’Etat’ is a rocky tune in atypical TMBG style: the new wavish tunes could almost be the work of The Smithereens or any of their peers, but the use of semi-nonsensical lyrics and a throwaway French refrain makes this classic, classic TMBG. It’s a tune that could provide an easy entry point for anyone who’d never previously heard anything by the band – and is possibly one of their best tunes since, well, forever. It has that infectious edge that makes the like of ‘She Thinks She’s Edith Head’ or ‘Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head’ so appealing, yet dresses that style of inane singalong up in better, more sophisticated musical clothes. In short, it should be a tune marked “essential listening”.
The percussion-heavy ‘Black Ops’ shuffles along nicely, with a surprisingly uncomplicated melody featuring splashes of Fender Rhodes, while the title cut is its polar opposite with a truckload of vocal multi-tracking, all delivered with a buoyancy and knowing smile carried over from years of making music for children. Both so, so different, and yet, both retain an unmistakable TMBG quality. Another of the album’s most essential listens, ‘Replicant’ finds the duo experimenting with spooky jazz tones mixed with electronic bleeps and drones. It ends up sounding unmistakably like the work of TMBG in its carefree experimentation, yet at the same time, it possesses a moodiness rarely evident in lots of their previous work – and some particular sinister lyrics to match. The use of vibraphones is understated although absolutely pivotal to making the piece hang together, while all vocals come with a creepy tone which evokes the quieter moments of Soul Coughing; perhaps something that’s been enhanced by enlisting that band’s producer Pat Dillett. Dillett’s influence can also be heard cutting through the middle of ‘Circular Karate Chop’, as a mildly threatening voice over meets an electronic bass boom – not unlike the darkest moments of Soul Coughing’s beatcentric 1998 swansong ‘El Oso’. The rest of the number mixes dry humour with first-class rock pop, borrowing guitar sounds from early eighties new wave and placing them against old-style garage rock organs with a strong appeal. ‘Insect Hospital’ is another particular stand out, poking a little fun at the likes of PETA, while churning out a fuzzed up Hendrix-esque riff, in a rare case of TMBG hitting that rock button. Like so many of ‘Nanobots’s sketchy moments, it ends just as it feels as if it was getting interesting…
Dark thoughts abound during ‘9 Secret Steps’ (“Amputate the thought that you shouldn’t ever amputate a thought”/”I can’ t tell you what’s in secret step five, you’ll only find out when you’re not alive”), dressed in near call and response vocals and a tune which sounds like Buddy Holly re-imagined by Violent Femmes. It shouldn’t really work, but like most TMBG flights of fancy, they pull this off like it’s the most natural thing in the world, as if their brand of oddball songcraft were as simple as a basic twelve bar blues. Another of the album’s musical fragments, ‘Sleep’ plays with vocals to the point where one of the harmonies almost sounds like a car horn; it had the potential to annoy, but has the sense to end almost at the point where it feels as if it’s not going anywhere. Perhaps more than many of the other more musical moments during ‘Nanobots’, this has a mood which feels like a throwback to the ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Flood’ days.
In a very reflective style, it’s semi-acoustic softness not always associated with TMBG, ‘Tesla’ is a ballad praising the pioneering inventor Nikola Tesla. While not necessarily the most interesting arrangement on ‘Nanobots’, it’s relative simplicity is quite striking. The acoustic tune is given a small amount of edginess via a lyric that tells us that Tesla’s invention of the radio wave – without which we may not be discussing this in the same way at all – has been used for good (radio waves, x-rays of Mark Twain’s skull), but always has potential for bad (a death ray design). It may not appeal to everyone, but it provides something of a musical rest; an oasis of relatively ordinariness to balance out the eleven fragmented pieces encountered within the album’s staggering twenty-five tracks.
Elsewhere, Linnell and Flansbugh seem hell bent on annoyance, as with ‘Call You Mom’ is lyrically banal, a track only saved by a brilliant Duane Eddy styled guitar riff (which, in turn, sounds like it could erupt into ‘Yakkety Yak’ at any moment) and hint of rock ‘n’ roll sax. Nearly as irksome, ‘Too Tall Girl’ is a disjointed tune with off-kilter vocals and parping saxophones and often feels as is if it’s trying just that bit too hard. Still, this just wouldn’t be a traditional TMBG release (if indeed there is such a thing) without the constant push and pull between quirky pop and aggravating oddity.
‘Nanobots’ doesn’t always come with the instant lovability of the best known TMBG tunes such as ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ or ‘Don’t Lets Start’ (‘Stone Cold Coup d’Etat’, aside), but is far more inspired than some of the band’s 90s work (circa ‘Mink Car’, where they arguably hit auto-pilot for a while). As such, there are plenty of golden moments waiting to be uncovered, but it’s unlikely to reach out to the unconverted. Since They Might Be Giants have been so prolific and are capable of making records this enjoyable some thirty years after their formation, it seems a pity that (in the UK, at least) so many people are still largely unaware of their works bar ‘Birdhouse’ and ‘Boss of Me’…