Review: The Spine (and related EPs)

Cover of

Cover of The Spine

2004 was an active year for They Might Be Giants; in April, they released the Indestructible Object EP as a teaser for their new full-length album The Spine, which came out 3 months later, along with a companion EP, The Spine Surfs Alone. (This isn’t even including the stuff they’ve been doing with Homestar Runner like the video for “Experimental Film”.)
Oddly, though, each of these CDs is rather short, and could be compiled into one CD. As is, Object is only about 12 minutes long, Spine is only around 33 minutes, and Surfs is also about 12 minutes; not to mention that Object repeats 2 tracks from Spine.

Still, though, they’re all for the most part good tracks. As with most TMBG releases, they suffer a little from not really being coherent albums as such, and more a collection of tracks, but TMBG fans are used to it by now, between Dial-a-Song and TMBG’s penchant for giving away free mp3s of works-in-progress, this seems like a relatively minor complaint since most folks have already heard most of this stuff at some point in various stages of development.

The five tracks on Object are all relatively short, and of them, 4 have been released in some form before; “Ant” from the Istanbul Not Constantinople EP, “Am I Awake” from the TV show Residents Life, “Caroline, No” and “Au Contraire” both from the TMBG Clock Radio. (I don’t ever recall hearing “Memo to Human Resources” on the Clock Radio, but I could have just missed it.) And both “Memo” and “Au Contraire” ended up coming out on Spine anyway (though “Contraire” was changed slightly between releases.

Looking at the tracks in order, we start with “Am I Awake”. It’s the same version as the one that’s been circulating around the Internet as part of the promotional materials for Residents Life, the reality show about medical interns on TLC (even though, many a time I’ve seen this come up in the Prevue Channel listings and gotten excited, thinking it was a program about a different sort of Resident. This is a really great song with lots of synth and it really captures the feeling of the whole medical intern scene. I was hoping they’d release this on CD, and now they have, so that’s good.

Next is “Memo To Human Resources”, another really strong track. It’s sung by Flansburgh, and it’s very sad. If it weren’t for “Am I Awake”, it’d be my favorite song on Object. It includes the line “Never mind the furthermore, the plea is self-defense”, which is YET ANOTHER Monkees reference by Flansburgh, (or perhaps an Oklahoma reference, though with the name-dropping of Peter Tork in the Bed, Bed, Bed book, my guess is that Flansburgh was thinking of “Zilch” rather than Rodgers & Hammerstein). The song seems to be about attempting suicide, which fits into the standard They Might Be Giants theme of death, which many of their best songs fit in with. So, I suppose it’s good that they’ve found a niche. Whatever works, right?

“Au Contraire” is one of Linnell’s, and it’s a parody of the 1950s beatnik scene; absurd lyrics dealing with pop culture, a jazzy background and the “Right on!” ending. This version has a flute solo that’s cut on the Spine version (so, if you’ve only got The Spine and like that little snatch of flute as they come back to the verse, you might consider getting this version of the song). From what I understand, this is a popular live song. I’ve only heard it on the TMBG Clock Radio, and while I like the song, I don’t have the affinity other folks have. It’s catchy, but rather forgettable, really.

“Ant” is performed with TMBG’s Other Thing, the full horn band featuring Mark “Loveman” Pender from the Max Weinberg 7. It’s also part of TMBG’s apparent goal of re-releasing everything from the Istanbul EP. First “James K. Polk” re-appeared on Factory Showroom, and after that, a live version of “Stormy Pinkness” was on the Dial-a-Song compilation (although, I wish we’d get a new Studio Version – if we’re talking about the Istanbul EP, “Stormy Pinkness” is my favorite track). So, I suppose a new “Ant” was inevitable. I like the original version much more, but the full sound on it is nice. I don’t like the adding of the snatch of “Hail to the Chief” on the president lines, though; it’d be great and funny live, but on an album it’s a little cloying. Otherwise, the arrangement’s pretty good, although I think it odd that Flans changed the lyrics to “the president calls your name in the nighttime/and this upsets your dreams while you’re sleeping”; seems to run counter to the nature of the song. But that could just be me.

The last track is “Caroline, No”, a cover of the last song on Pet Sounds by Beach Boys. This is also performed with TMBG’s Other Thing, and succeeds much more than “Ant”. Flansburgh’s vocals are almost perfect for this song; he nails the emotional core of the song. The arrangement is pretty faithful, but since the original was perfect, why mess things up? It’s really clear that this isn’t a cover by someone who merely Digs The Sound, but rather, someone who intimately understands the song. It actually makes me want to hear TMBG do more Beach Boys songs; perhaps even covering the whole of Pet Sounds. I wouldn’t mind if they’d want to do that and release that as a bonus LP with their next album.

After letting people digest Indestructible Object for a while, TMBG released the two Spine discs at once. The Spine is much more straightforward and much more of a rock album, while The Spine Surfs Alone is more experimental. Where, in the old days, they’d just combine the two types of songs and let it stand at that, this time, they decided to separate them. Unfortunately, this means that instead of one normal-length album, we get a short album and a short EP, which is a little annoying when it comes to the real-world aspects; mainly having to buy 2 CDs for 1 CD’s worth of music.

The Spine was the first disc I heard – I think that was the intent, that Surfs was intended more as a dessert (with Object as the hors d’oeuvre before the main meal of Spine). I find Spine to be a bit back-loaded – a switch, since it usually seems that TMBG albums are more often front-loaded-with-a-great-closing-song.

It opens with “Experimental Film”, which is pretty good, but also really safe-sounding. It sounds pretty much like the Expected They Might Be Giants Track. That could be why it’s the first single from the album, but it’s not the stand-out choice to me. It seems too much like a Generic TMBG Rock Song, if there is such an animal. But, well, Generic TMBG is much better than a lot of stuff out there, so it’s impossible to complain too awfully much.

After that is the first of two “Spine” tracks (three if you include the title track on The Spine Surfs Alone), this one sung by Linnell. There’s a bit of a Beach Boys sound to it, which I suppose isn’t too unexpected, what with “Caroline, No” on Object. It’s only about 30 seconds long, and leads into the exact same version of “Memo to Human Resources” from Indestructible Object. It’s still really good, though.

After that is “Wearing a Raincoat”, a Linnell song that makes lots of psychedelic/hallucinogenic references, all while hitting the familiar themes of alienation (“Needing a friend to talk you down/I
s food that comes from a pipe/But when you hate the food/That comes from a pipe/You will turn to drugs/To help you sleep”) and depression (“And sleeping is a gateway drug/To being awake, being awake, being awake again”). This song took a while for me to warm up to, but after a while, it clicked with me. It’s still not my favorite one, but it’s pretty good.

Keeping with alternating vocalists, Flansburgh’s “Prevenge” is an awesome idea, but not fully fleshed out. The lyrics never really flesh out the concept of “prevenge” (though, how much fleshing out does it need? It seems pretty self-explanatory.) nor the story of the lyrics. The Mr. Pupkin reference (most likely Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy?) tends to come from nowhere and doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s quite catchy, though.

Linnell’s “Thunderbird” is pretty great, though, even if the production doesn’t seem quite right for it. He dropped the line about “melting a man”, but kept in the Beach Boys allusion with “We like fun/me and my girl/we’ll have fun fun fun until/T-bird takes her dad away”. It’s also got the great segment with the lines “before you fall, you have to learn to crawl/you can’t see heaven when you’re standing tall/to see the whole sky/on the ground you have to lie”. It’s a pretty happy song for being so crushingly sad about a person knowing they’re drinking themselves to death, and who doesn’t really want to stop.

The faux-Cher auto-tune-laden “Bastard Wants To Hit Me” is, well, a great title for a song. And as a song, it certainly has a great title. The fact that you’re never sure whether or not the bastard does indeed want to hit him is a nice touch, but like Flansburgh’s “Prevenge”, it’s not really fleshed out.

“The World Before Later On” is certainly a track on this album. It hits the standard thing of “If it’s the future, where’s our hovercars?”, but it doesn’t really work. It’s almost a torch song to our lack of Neat Future Gadgets, but the “where’s the font of acquired wisdom that eludes me” line tends to push it too close to John Henry‘s “O Do Not Forsake Me”, which was done much better.

“Museum of Idiots” is where the album really picks up. It’s a song that Linnell’s been performing live for a long time, and I’m glad to finally have it on an album. The horn arrangement on it is excellent, and the entire song perfectly grabs that air of sadness combined with a little bit of futile hope. It might not be about death, but it’s good enough to be.

Speaking of great songs, “It’s Kickin’ In” really should have been both longer and the first single. It’s easily the strongest track on the album. It’s a really fun rocker, and the best produced track (unlike the rest of the disc, this song’s produced by The Elegant Too). Usually when I listen to this album, I end up playing “It’s Kickin’ In” about 3 times, sometimes skipping back to let “Museum of Idiots” play a couple times more, too. With any luck, it’ll be the second single, since, after all, that’d keep TMBG’s standard thing going of alternating singles between Linnell and Flansburgh. (They don’t always do it that way, but it seems to be a rough rule of thumb, anyway.)

Flansburgh’s attempt at a Spine track, “Spines” is really great. It’s that standard goofing on pop music convention that Flansburgh does so well. Although, the drawing accompanying it in the liner notes of a halved deer with exposed spine is rather unsettling. Next is “Au Contraire”, which is the same performance as the version on Object but with the flute solo removed. This segues into “Damn Good Times”, which has been available for a long time at theymightbegiants.com, but it’s been re-recorded for the album.

“Broke in Two” is another really, really great song. It’s a pretty straight-forward Linnell rocker, but it’s much stronger than “Experimental Film”. If they wanted a Linnell single, they should have chosen this one (though I’m not sure if it would have lent itself to a video by Strong Sad and the Cheat nearly as well as “Experimental Film” did). Standard lyrical content of a relationship going south, but Linnell’s great at writing these; check out “They’ll Need a Crane” or “I’ve Got A Match”, for example.

“Stalk Of Wheat” is a strange little song, but also wonderful. Sometimes Linnell can’t do the funnier stuff quite as well without it being a little weirdly cloying (like “Particle Man” for example, though I think my main objection to that may have just been that I’ve heard it way, way too many times), but this one is great. A little theatrical-sounding number that I could see as a between-bit vaudeville performance.

The last track is “I Can’t Hide From My Mind”. If you’ve seen Gigantic, you’ve heard the first verse. It’s a couple minutes longer than that, though, but it continues on in the same theme. Oddly enough, while after I saw Gigantic, I couldn’t get the tune out of my head, the Spine version doesn’t stick with me nearly as much. It’s good, though, but I think there’s just something in the arrangement that could be fixed.

The Spine Surfs Alone is much more erratic than and not nearly as cohesive as either The Spine or Indestructible Object. The songs on it seem more suited as breathers put into an album to break it up a bit – not necessarily filler tracks, but not exactly a-sides either.

“The Spine Surfs Alone” is another Flansburgh Spine Track, and the lyrics are mostly there for the sound rather than the message; of course, this isn’t a bad thing, as it’s a pretty cool song. It’s the weakest of the three “Spine” tracks, though, even though it’s the longest (and most similar to actual song length, being about 2 minutes long). After that’s “Now Is Strange”, a pretty cool Linnell song about the world slowly changing to be unsettling and surreal. It’s good, but like most of the songs on SSA, forgettable.

“I’m All You Can Think About” is a goofy novelty song (which also is the song in the flash video – apparently made by Linnell! – when you put the CD in your computer!) about a man with a tiny face who takes over your thoughts. It’s sort of familiar, though, but good and probably the second-catchiest song on the EP. It’s a great B-side. “Fun Assassin” doesn’t actually feature a John on vocals, and is actually not really very good. It’s not bad, either, but it’s one of those that is just there.

“Skullivan”, on the other hand, is also a goofy novelty song, but is really, really great. Sure, it’s continuing TMBG’s love of skulls, and I’m pretty sure that it’s the Skullivan that makes an appearance in the “Experimental Film” video. The Skullivan seems like a really good guy, too. He wants to make people tea, and he rents Tootsie for people. I’ve only seen a little bit of that movie, but it seemed pretty amusing, so if the Skullivan rented it for me, I’d be totally happy with that. I wish the Skullivan were my friend.

“The Other Side of the World” is a neat little instrumental, which leads into “Canada Haunts Me” which doesn’t really fit. It was recorded for the audio-book version of Sarah Vowell’s The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, so it does get extra-credit for her stamp of approval, since I really think Sarah Vowell’s completely adorable.

The thing with the tracks is that they’re all pretty good, even if there’s some droppable ones (mainly “Canada Haunts Me”, “Fun Assassin” and “The World Before Later On”, and I’d allow an argument to be made for “Ant”), but it’s a little weird for them to be spread out across three CDs, when there’s barely an hour between them. I really wish they’d have made the Spine all one CD. I’d probably open it with “Am I Awake”, since that’s a great opening track, and end it with “Caroline, No”, with the three “Spines” tracks assembled as the secon
d, second-to-last and centermost song of the CD. “Spine Surfs Alone” would be the middle Spine track, with “Spines” as the first, and “Spine” as the last. I’m not sure which “Au Contraire” I’d use, but they’re so similar, it’s not really worth worrying about.

I suppose my Spine would look something like this:

  • Am I Awake
  • Spines
  • Museum of Idiots
  • It’s Kickin’ In
  • Experimental Film
  • Prevenge
  • Wearing a Raincoat
  • Skullivan
  • Au Contraire
  • Damn Good Times
  • Bastard Wants to Hit Me
  • Spine Surfs Alone
  • Broke in Two
  • Memo to Human Resources
  • Stalk of Wheat
  • I Can’t Hide From My Mind
  • I’m All You Can Think About
  • The Other Side of the World
  • Thunderbird
  • Ant
  • Now Is Strange
  • Spine
  • Caroline, No

This is just a rough sketch – I haven’t actually compiled this, so I’m not sure how it’d play out. If other people would like to make suggestions on to making what the Spine should have been, feel free to place your playlist! It’s all right to leave tracks off (I cut “Canada Haunts Me”, “World Before Later On” and “Fun Assassin”). So, feel free to do that, and to also comment on my ordering! This is just a first whack, and I might tweeze the ordering later, depending on whim and how this flows. The only tracks that actually do a cross-track segue are “Au Contraire” (the Spine version) and “Damn Good Times”, so those are the only two that need to be tied together, but other than that, TMBG is pretty good in that they don’t tie songs together. I guess they realize that album ordering isn’t their strong suit, and like to leave things open for their fans to take a whack at it as well.

At any rate though, The Spine and related EPs are definitely worth your money, although I wish they’d let us save a little bit and combine all this stuff onto one disc so we wouldn’t have to pay in installments for an hour’s worth of music. After all, they’re the band that said albums with 10 or 11 songs on them made them angry – the TMBG Power Spheres are Melody, Fidelity and Quantity; they’ve already provided the Melody and Fidelity, so why don’t we help out with the Quantity?

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