“We can’t be silent ’cause they might be giants. And what are we going to do unless they are?” They Might Be Giants posed this question in 1990, and 17 years later they’ve made good on their potential. “The Else” is the band’s twelfth studio release, marking a quarter-century together. At their best, They Might Be Giants have crafted near-perfect pop songs; at their worst they’ve been written off as a novelty act. “The Else” falls somewhere between the two; it’s a little inconsistent, but with flashes of the work that made the band great.
“I’m Impressed” kicks off the album, and it hums along with positive energy. Reminiscent of early They Might Be Giants songs like “Don’t Let’s Start,” John Linnell delivers catchy, danceable indie pop. John Flansburgh’s guitar adds an edge to the song, but Linnell’s vocal melodies really sell this track. “Take Out the Trash” follows, but it feels like a misstep. The guitar work is solid, but everything else is forgettable, and the lyrics (“Girl, why don’t you take out the trash?”) definitely don’t help.
The album hits its first peak with “Upside Down Frown,” in which Linnell carries an engaging melody over flowing electric guitar lines. The drum loops help to give the song an extra shot in the arm. “Careful What You Pack” is even better and almost experimental. The track starts with an instrumental intro that wouldn’t be out of place on Radiohead’s album “Kid A,” before giving way to an expansive production and shimmering melodies. It’s nice to see the band is still taking chances this far in their career.
Unfortunately, the middle of the album devolves into novelty songs. “With the Dark” is confusing. The song can’t stay in one genre for even a minute, jarringly transitioning from lo-fi to a big band sound to a pirate anthem. Randomly-placed lyrics about taxidermy offer nothing to remedy the lack of cohesion. It’s fun for the first listen or two, but the gimmick soon wears thin. The real tragedy is that if any one of these ideas had been fleshed out into a full track, it would have been a strong song.
However, “The Else’s” final three tracks ensure that They Might Be Giants go out on a high note. Linnel works his way out of the album’s valley with “Contrecoup,” an infectious, acoustic-guitar-driven song about phrenology. True to form, Linnel’s lyrics include words like contrecoup, craniosophic and limerent. A perfectly placed guitar solo adds a lot to this track. Following “Contrecoup” is “Feign Amnesia,” probably Flansburgh’s best song on the album, and its best hook. “Feign Amnesia” sounds a lot like one of the New Pornographers’ better tracks, with more high-energy guitar riffs and vocal harmonizing.
Finally, “The Mesopotamians” closes the record in a typically quirky fashion. Another Linnel contribution, this song imagines a group of Mesopotamians driving around in an Econoline van, trying to get their band off the ground. It’s a goofy concept, but the power-pop harmonies keep “The Mesopotamians” from falling into the territory that made some of the earlier tracks expendable.
Fans of They Might Be Giants will find a lot to like on “The Else,” particularly at the beginning and end of the album. But (as usual) the Johns have a tendency to get gimmicky at times, and some tracks are frustrating.
“The Else” will likely appeal to fans of Weezer and The Beatles as well, but first-time listeners might want to start with They Might Be Giants’ more popular “Lincoln.”