Sound — 7
They Might Be Giants march to the beat of their own drum - a drum that's eclectic, prolific, and completely fine with being downright strange. Having started out as a humble alt-rock duo over thirty years ago, they spent the first half in obscurity until the turn of the millennium, where their big break would come in the form of composing and/or performing songs for movies and TV shows, including "Dr. Evil" for "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," the theme song for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and the stupidly-addicting, Grammy Award-winning theme song for "Malcom in the Middle." It was around this time as well that TMBG would also compose albums intended for children's education, and would end up being pretty damn good at it - their third children's music release, "Here Comes the 123s," won TMBG another Grammy, and the following "Here Comes Science" would also be nominated the year after.
Though this endeavor into children's music reaped a nice reward, TMBG have set their focus back on their regular listenership. After getting back into form with 2011's "Join Us" and 2013's "Nanobots," TMBG would revamp their innovative and trademark quirky "Dial-A-Song" project that they originally incepted decades ago; now with a better-working system and bigger audience to interact with it. While they're continuing to work on new recordings for the hotline for the rest of the year, they compiled several of the recordings they already premiered on the hotline in the past few months for their seventeenth album, "Glean."
As expected, a big portion of the album is built of the indie/alt-rock meat that TMBG have boiled down to a science, like the simple 1-2 riffs of "Erase," the acoustic guitar/accordion-fueled "Good to Be Alive" and "Answer," and the synth-decorated "All The Lazy Boyfriends." Even though these may feel like moments of cruise control for the duo's songwriting, there are still some great instrumental moments - "Underwater Woman" is equipped with a remarkable set of skilled basslines and drum syncopation, and the dreamy and bluesy "I'm a Coward" boasts some nice guitar leads.
But of course, it wouldn't be a proper TMBG album if it didn't contain some sonic curveballs, and the duo makes room for some genre gallivanting in "Glean." The goofy "I Can Help the Next in Line" sounds like if the funkiness of early-era Red Hot Chili Peppers tried their hand at making power pop, and "Aaa" both scratches the duo's itch for silliness and TV theme, being a pastiche of the kitschy retro horror theme songs of "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters." And whether or not it's in the interest of counterbalancing the long stint of children's listening music they composed years prior, some of the curveballs heard in the album take form in an oldies aesthetic: the classic and inquisitive strings and piano melodies in "Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2" evokes ballroom dancing; "End of the Rope" switches things into a low and morose lounge jazz gear, sounding like a crooner's sad number of the night; and "Let Me Tell You About My Operation" shifts things into a more jovial gear with a Roaring Twenties big band style.
Lyrics — 7
While TMBG's lyrics have always taken form as a miscellaneous collage where no topic is too silly, the hodgepodge of lyrical topics in "Glean" feel more simplistic compared to the previous "Nanobots." Numerous songs are either very hook-reliant, like the repetition heard in "Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2," "Aaa" and "I Can Help The Next in Line," or keep the elaboration on a topic fairly contained, like the elementary "I'm a Coward," the Mr. Roger's philosophy of "Good to Be Alive," or "Underwater Woman," which tells a story akin to if The Little Mermaid was a clinically-insane bag lady.
Nevertheless, TMBG still reap some noteworthy moments in their lyrics. As opposed to the simple "be happy" message of "Good to Be Alive," "Answer" doesn't sugarcoat the disappointments of life but still stresses to be happy with what you have, which is seasoned with a decent amount of wordplay ("You ordered well, they brought you medium rare / You were promised fair, and in response a clap of thunder broke the air"). "Hate the Villanelle" also flaunts some lyrical wit by painting a cheeky and metatextual class assignment of the student redirecting his teacher's frustration towards him back at her. And the lyrics that accompany the period-piece songs do a good job fitting the theme properly, with "End of the Rope" wielding just enough schmaltz, and the roller-coaster romance depicted in "Let Me Tell You About My Operation" emulating a Sinatra-esque bombast to match the size of the instrumental arrangement.
Overall Impression — 7
Having done this for three decades, TMBG's compositional life has become a circuit road that they know how to do a lap on with a short amount of time and fair amount of finesse. This routine of songwriting may hold a double-edged sword of dependability and predictability, but their penchant for hitting the mark of quirky entertainment is still intact, and the main appeal of their music in the grand scheme of things. "Glean" may not be concerned with forward thinking or reinventing TMBG and the music genres they practice, but it's still an enjoyable listen.