It is by now almost a clichè to describe John Flansburgh and John Linnell: the well-mannered young postmodernists who go by the name of They Might Be Giants: with kiss-of-death epithets like "brainy" and "too smart for the room," but there's really no other way to deal with these guys. The fact is, you don't listen to them because they're the conscience of the Western World or because they're particularly glamorous or danceable. You listen to them because they're smart, funny, inventive, and literate: all of which they are, in spades, in "Flood," their latest collection of recorded musings (and their first on a major label).
The odd thing about this duo, however, is that despite TMBG's obviously high SAT scores and encyclopedic memories, there's also a most becoming childlike playfulness at the heart of their work. The obvious comparison, which gets even more obvious than usual on "Flood," is to the acid-period Brian Wilson. And this time out it's not just the instrumentation (the by-now trademark mèlange of futuristic and toy instruments) and Sixties-whimsical lyrics that make you wonder if you're hearing a deliberately contempo version of "Pet Sounds." In a song like Birdhouse in Your Soul, the chord changes and structural tracks are so eerily reminiscent of the head Beach Boy at his most visionary that you almost believe this is homage rather than unconscious evocation.
Of course, Brian Wilson never had a lyric writer with the sensibility of TMBG, so most of the rest of "Flood" can't be mistaken for the work of a naïve genius with a brain fried on formerly fashionable chemicals. Flansburgh and Linnell are most definitely coming from a different place: a world, for better or worse, bounded on all sides by TV, aprés-Reagan Era confusion, and the general detritus of popular culture. As a result, the songs in this album, ranging in idiom from demented polkas to fake sitcom themes to just about everything else imaginable in between, have a sort of refracted Through the Looking Glass quality about them. Even when you think you know what they're getting at, they still, perhaps deliberately, resist interpretation.
On the other hand, as you might expect, there are also times when the jokes are a little too obvious (Minimum Wage, which takes off on Love, American Style soundtrack shock) and the cleverness is rather undergraduate. For my money, however, at its best TMBG's music is some of the most original and interesting pop being made these days. And while their latest album doesn't break new ground, it still makes the bulk of what you hear on the radio sound retarded.
"Flood" may be a little insular, and a bigger backbeat occasionally would not have hurt, but since people who wear their brains on their sleeves are in such short supply these days, I'm not prepared to carp. Moreover, the sound, especially on CD, is so gorgeously transparent and realistic that it might be holographic. In other words, get this one, and fast.