They Might Be Giants Grow Up Again with "Join Us"

Billboard, July 12, 2011
by Jon Blistein

"I feel like that's the beginning of the modern They Might Be Giants," John Flansburgh tells It's a pretty declarative statement, especially when you consider how vast Flansburgh's discography is as one-half of nerd-rock heroes, They Might Be Giants, along with John Linnell.

But Flansburgh isn't talking about the one of the band's seminal records like "Lincoln" or "Flood." For him the turning point was 2002's "No!" the band's first foray into children's music.

Granted, there's always been a youthful quality to They Might Be Giants -- see: "Particle Man" from 1990's "Flood" -- but this kid-specific project proved very successful. And it was the kind of work the band needed at that moment. While the band was making "No!" they were also pulling all-nighters recording incidental music for the TV show, "Malcolm In The Middle," an overwhelming and "strangely thankless" project, according to Flansburgh.

"No!" was the perfect respite, reminding the band of how they recorded its debut self-titled album back in 1986: "We were sneaking into studios in the middle of the night on borrowed time," reminisced Flansburgh. "The world was saying, 'You shouldn't make a record,' and we made one anyway."

They Might Be Giants recorded three more well-received children's records over the next seven years, but now the band is finally returning to its roots with their first rock record since 2007's "The Else." And on "Join Us," out today (July 12), this modern They Might Be Giants is more than ready to pick up where they left off.

The cover of "Join Us" features a DayGlo-pink hearse with monster truck wheels (designed by Paul Sahre) and nails that contrast between absurdity and reality characteristic of They Might Be Giants' music. But that doesn't mean They Might Be Giants are now death-obsessed cynics; they're still the wordplay-loving creators of some of rock's quirkiest and catchiest tracks.

"For us," said Flansburgh, "the challenge of writing an interesting song comes down to the words and music and just the idea of the song -- and getting to a good idea is hard enough. But then making it straightforward enough that it kind of has that bulletproof quality. . .I think the idea was to just do stuff that was very direct."

It's definitely something you can hear on the album's first cut, "Can't Keep Johnny Down." Over a sunny guitar lick that soon turns into distorted power-chords, Linnell sings "Outnumbered a million to one / All of the dicks in this dick-town / Can't keep Johnny down," with a gritty, almost sneering voice that still feels playful -- and of course Linnell tosses in some much-welcomed accordion.

Even though "Join Us" is the band's fifteenth record, Flansburgh says "it actually does feel like a big moment for us."

They Might Be Giants is a band that simply loves making music, something that still excites them after almost 30 years. Recently the band recorded a cover of Chumbawumba's one-hit wonder "Tubthumping" (for The Onion AV Club), a song that, in the clip, Linnell said was somewhat similar to a They Might Be Giants track. Flansburgh was ecstatic that it gave him the chance to bust out his falsetto, and of the cover he added, "I think people love that song, but they don't love it in their minds. They love it in their heart or some other internal organ." The same could be said of They Might Be Giants songs.