They Might Be Giants, Nanobots – A quick glance at this album reveals that it has twenty-five songs, but some of them are really short. In addition to being the title of one song in particular, the album title seems to reference the fact that it’s made up of many individual tiny parts. Something like that, anyway. It’s not necessarily all that cohesive as a whole, but it works in its own way. On my first few listens, it doesn’t grab me as much as their last one did. Some of the songs come across as a bit generic for TMBG, although that’s probably bound to happen when you’ve been recording as long as they have. I guess I’d say that, as a whole, it’s fun but not all that substantial. Of course, such ideas are always subject to change. Here are my thoughts on the individual tracks:
You’re on Fire – This is really catchy and has amusing lyrics, but I can’t say it has a whole lot of substance.
Nanobots – I like this one, despite (or perhaps partially because of) John Linnell’s unusual pronunciation of the title. It’s a fun little number about reproduction, which mentions sleeper cells and includes a reference to the Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (which TMBG once covered at a show in a medley with the Everly Brothers’ “Dream”).
Black Ops – A slow song that seems rather topical, what with all the talk about drone strikes in the news. What it’s actually about isn’t totally clear, but there’s definitely some commentary on modern warfare, as oblique as it might be.
Lost My Mind – There’s nothing really wrong with this song, but it kind of feels like by-the-numbers TMBG, if that makes any sense. It’s what you might call a generic Linnell song.
Circular Karate Chop – This rock number sticks out as an early favorite. The lyrics seem to be about being bullied at school. Beth tells me she particularly likes the phrases “black backpack” and “short sharp shock,” the latter of which is presumably a Gilbert and Sullivan reference. The absurd “three rules from your sensei” bit reminds me of the Daily Home Astrology Report in “Hide Away Folk Family.”
Call You Mom – A catchy tune with lyrics that are a little disturbing, as the narrator appears to have issues stemming from being abandoned by his mother and trying to find a replacement. Not one of my favorites, but pretty solid nonetheless.
Tesla – Another entry in TMBG’s body of educational songs, this time about the scientist who seems to be a pretty popular figure these days. It’s pretty simple and straightforward, but still contains a few
Sleep – Like “Lost My Mind,” it’s somewhat generic Linnell, but has a much more interesting arrangement. It ends rather abruptly, though. I might have liked a little more, but I suppose it said all it needed to say.
Stone Cold Coup d’Etat – Sleeper cells, drone strikes, and now a coup d’etat in a title…am I noticing a martial theme here? The chorus has been stuck in my head, but the verses aren’t quite as memorable.
Sometimes a Lonely Way – This one reminds me quite a bit of “Idlewild,” and maybe “Canada Haunts Me” as well. It’s a low-key number that hasn’t really grabbed me so far.
Destroy the Past – Sounds more like the introduction to a song than a song in its own right.
9 Secret Steps – Someone said the rhythm to this one is reminiscent of “James K. Polk,” and I can hear it. It’s a rather bouncy-sounding song. I really like the lyrics to this one as well, particularly “throw away the thing that tells you not to throw the thing away” and “inhume your gloom within a tomb, confine your mind behind the line.”
Hive Mind – This reminds me of a lot of stuff they did for McSweeney’s, in that there’s nothing to it but the title. I have to wonder if this was inspired by John Hodgman, who frequently refers to his Twitter followers as a hive mind.
Decision Makers – Two of these really short songs in a row? What is this, “Fingertips” all over again? And like some of those, this one is sung by a guest vocalist, Jedediah Parish.
Nouns – Another short one, but more interesting than the last two, with a fun arrangement featuring xylophone and bass clarinet (I think; you can correct me if I got the instruments wrong). I remember seeing an interview with the Johns where they said something about running out of nouns to feature in songs, so I guess they went ahead and made a song about that.
There – It’s always nice to hear Robin Goldwasser, but it’s a little disappointing that her lead vocal is on one of these songs that’s only a few seconds long.
Insect Hospital – This title is one they’ve been kicking around for years; I know it was a proposed title for an album, and they did a song about an after hours party at the insect hospital at a live show. This song is quite different from that one, but I might have actually preferred the “after hours” song, as there isn’t much to this. There’s a guitar solo to expand it a little bit beyond the five-second songs, but it still feels unfinished. I do appreciate the seeming mockery of the common use of “literally” to mean its exact opposite.
Tick – Another really short one, but I don’t know that this particular one needs any more to it. It sounds kind of like something from a musical. I like it.
Replicant – Finally, a song that isn’t super-short! It’s still pretty short (under three minutes), but on this album it doesn’t feel like it. I get the impression that the replicant here is actually just a child.
The Darlings of Lumberland -This is the longest song on the album, and it’s probably the most complex as well. The Darlings of Lumberland were actual people, a founding family in a region of the Catskills. As far as I can tell, the lyrics are imagining them as undead. The music is appropriately eerie, but also fun, with kind of a Halloween party vibe.
Great – A little under a minute long, and neither particularly good nor bad.
Stuff Is Way – I sort of see this as the follow-up to “Nouns,” because once you’ve run out of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, all you can really have is a jumble of semi-related words like this one. It’s a good song in a nonsensical way.
Icky – A song about a rather unpleasant character, which plays quite a bit with language. I like the pun on the phrase “pair of slacks.” There’s also some fun with expressions like “best bud” and “getting all up in your face.”
Too Tall Girl – Another favorite of mine. I just love the way this one sounds, and there are some clever rhymes as well.
Didn’t Kill Me – We end the whole thing with another short song that works as a short song. It feels a lot like an old Dial-A-Song that was never developed beyond a basic idea.