"Climbing the Walls" from the album The Else
They Might be Giants have recently veered down a different road. After the release of a pair of children's albums — No and Here Come The ABCs — and a book/CD titled Bed Bed Bed, the band earned a new audience and a new presence in the public consciousness.
As guitarist/vocalist John Flansburgh puts it, the times called for They Might Be Giants to record a studio album that made an emphatic statement.
"It's such a man-bites-dog story, that an actual rock band would do stuff for kids; that it completely overwhelmed the coverage of our regular releases," Flansburgh says. "Our adult efforts were barely getting reviewed, and if they were getting reviewed, it was always in the context of the kids stuff. I think we wanted to do something that was bold enough to get noticed on its own and not be sort of eclipsed by the natural, by the man-bites-dog story of our kids' stuff."
He and co-leader vocalist/keyboardist John Linnell have continually released albums for two decades.
They Might Be Giants started out in the mid-'80s as a duo of Flansburgh and Linnell. The current lineup includes Dan "Solder" Miller on guitar, Danny Weinkauf on bass, and Marty Beller on drums.
They recently made a daring move, undertaking a surprising, unexpected collaboration with notorious production team the Dust Brothers. Where the Giants are known for catchy, quirky, and funny pop songs, the Dust Brothers — Michael Simpson (a.k.a. E.Z. Mike) and John King (a.k.a. King Gizmo) — made their mark by bringing a modern, sample-based techno/hip-hop sound to sessions by the likes of the Beastie Boys, Beck, and The Rolling Stones.
The odd pairing works well on the new They Might Be Giants collection The Else. Even more surprising is that the Dust Brothers' style of production doesn't overwhelm the usual virtues of the Giants' music.
On early records like Lincoln (1988) and Flood (1990), the group's lyrics were at various turns brainy, clever, and downright funny, frequently overshadowing the music. Songs were usually catchy and well-crafted, but stylistically all over the map. There was also a kitsch factor that caused some to view They Might Be Giants as more of a novelty act than a band that would go on to gain such longevity. As the group's career has progressed, the musical side of the songwriting and arranging sharpened as the tunes became more elaborate.
The Dust Brothers make their presence felt on The Else, bringing a skittering beat to "Upside Down Frown" and crafting a hyper, vaguely funky rhythm for "Withered Hope." But on songs such as the bright rockers "The Cap'm," and "Feign Amnesia," the production is conventional enough that one would not peg them as Dust Brothers tracks. Several of the songs — such as "I'm Impressed," with its robotic touches, and "Careful What You Pack," with its icy electronic elements — were co-produced by They Might Be Giants with long-time collaborator Patrick Dillettare and are as sonically interesting as the Dust Brothers' productions.
Speaking about the celebrated DBs, Flansburgh says, "They were all very respectful of what we do and what we brought to the party. I think they are probably the first people to realize that they have so much mad flavor in their approach that they could kind of overwhelm any of the people that they're collaborating with. I'm actually very pleased with the idea that the band wasn't just completely recast as a Dust Brothers production."