So, I've been trying to write for a new CD review site called ZenGrooves. "Trying", because I've only got two reviews done, and I'm way past deadline for the other 3. Life is full, y'know?

Anyways, here's a short one on "Nevermind" (Classic album category), and a longer one on "The Else", the latest offering from They Might Be Giants (New album Category). Albums I am currently trying to find the time for(I'm so sorry Fred!) are:

Build A Nation - Bad Brains
Good Morning Revival - Good Charlotte
Infinity On High - Fall Out Boy
Zeitgeist - Smashing Pumpkins

ZenGrooves is looking for more writers, so head over there if you're interested.


On Nirvana's final album In Utero, Kurt Cobain opined "Teenaged angst has paid off well / but now it's time to go". Turns out, that was rather prescient.

Nevermind, the bands 2nd album and huge break out, changed everything. Disenfranchised kids across the world had something to cling to, sick of the decadent and formulaic pap of early 90's corporate music, they had something from the underground, something they could scare their parents with again, without delving too far into the weird fringes that is the "alternative" music scene. And I was one of them. I was in Vancouver the week before the nationwide launch, and actually got it a week before anyone on the East Coast. I brought it back to Toronto, and played it for my friends, proud to be one of the vanguard of the rebellious; cranking Nevermind from my car stereo, windows down, challenging the denizens of my suburban bedroom community to listen to something previously unpalatable. Within a month, I knew the album front to back, note for note.

The funny thing is, I was already starting to grow up before Cobain died, and that’s my point: Nirvana is/was a band for disenfranchised teenagers.

I have tried listening to Nevermind as a grown up, and I just don't buy it. The obtuse lyrics that seemed so rebellious and mysterious to me as a teenager now just seem the meandering bad-high-school-poetry of a troubled miscreant, trying too hard to juxtapose the normal with the shocking, to see the look on his therapists face. The sloppy playing of Cobain seemed like the perfect counterpoint to the tight backbeat of Novaselic and Grohl; now I find it distracting. The high energy, high distorted, scream along choruses that launched "grunge" and a thousand imitators seemed the pinnacle of a rock revolution; now, I'm much more interested in a well sung melody, a solid harmony, I'm far more impressed with a band that can be successfully quiet than a band that can turn it to 11.

But what do I know? I'm just old. And I still see the youth of today wearing Nirvana T-shirts, rediscovering the music of my youth, just as I rediscovered the Sex Pistols once. It's the circle of life. Cue Elton John.


Ah, 1990.

I was 17. I was just newly driving, newly shaving, newly ‘deflowered'. And there was an album that spent a brief residency in my tape player called Flood by a band called They Might Be Giants. "Quirky" songs like "Birdhouse In Your Soul", "Triangle Man", and especially "Istanbul(not Constantinople)" captured the more ironic parts of my imagination, and didn't let go for about 10 weeks. But after awhile, I was again enticed by the siren song of the more traditional modern rock sounds of the day. And then grunge broke and I, much like the majority of the world, completely forgot all about the band.

I haven't listened to the guys since then, except for noticing their music being used as the theme song for a couple of different TV shows, and smiling inwardly with recognition. In the interest of not alienating the hardcore TMBG fan, it must be noted that that classic album is my only reference point for the band, and therefore my only anchor of reference for this review. I am now exactly twice as old as when we first met, and like an old High School friend you look up on Facebook, TMBG come back older and wiser, but still the same old TMBG, with their latest album, The Else.

Much like Flood, The Else is not an album I will listen to in it's entirety for very long, which I allow is probably more due to subjective taste than for overall quality. It is still a good album, and TMBG fans will probably love it, with the one caveat that it is much more mainstream than Flood. Whether this is a new development that could potentially alienate their fan base, or whether it is a trend that has been continuing over the years, I don't know. Either way, there are gems worth strip mining the album for, and adding to your collection.

Immediately, one is struck with how much less "quirky" their songs are now. Which is not to say that they have lost their sense of mirth and experimentation. This IS a TMBG album. The relaxed vocals and eccentric lyrics are still there, as is the fun experimentation with instrumentation. I don't know whether its because Flood was SO quirky for its time, or because they guys have actually mellowed and become more accessible, or if I have become older and less tolerant of silliness, but I like this album a lot more, though a classic Flood may be.

Songs like "Careful What You Pack" will be on heavy rotation in my ipod for some time. It is easily my favourite on this album, with it's "Ben Folds 5" chord progression and sweet harmonies. I'm actually reluctant to name drop other bands as a reference, since one could easily argue that Ben Folds is entirely influenced by TMBG. They're that influential on this sub-genre ("college-rock"?) of music.

"Upside Down Frown" has a cool jungle/dance club rhythm juxtaposed with an acoustic guitar, which catches the ear nicely, being fairly disparate sounds. This is augmented by the major key feel of the verse transforming nicely into a minor key feel for the chorus.

"With The Dark" is much closer to their older sound. With lyrics about taxidermy and nauticism (appearing in the same stanza!), multiple time signatures and keys, the notable absence of any identifiable chorus, and several unexpected instruments coming out of nowhere, it sounds like 2 or 3 songs jammed together. But they make it work, with clever shifts in momentum matching the lyrics at the time, and brilliant movements in the chord progression taking the listener from point to point in the song. The overall result is clever and enticing, and vintage TMBG, however unpalatable it may be to this reviewer.

The same can be said for "The Mesopotamians", with it's chorus of "We're the Mesopotamians/ Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh". Such arcanity is really unparalleled in successful modern rock. They are the masters of the obscure, the standard by which all other "quirky" college-indie-rock should be measured (there's that word "quirky" again, and although unwieldy, it's almost impossible to escape when discussing this band).

Upon hearing this stanza from the aforementioned song , one wonders if it explains their rationale for acquiring a new, more accessible sound: "Then they wouldn't understand a word we say / So we'll scratch it all down into the clay / Half believing there will sometime come a day / Someone gives a damn / Maybe when the concrete has crumbled to sand". Maybe the duo got tired of being pigeon holed as "critical darlings" and actually wanted the masses to fall in line? Whatever the reason, it works.

"The Shadow Government" is probably the most solid track of the bunch, straddling the old TMBG sound with the new more refined sound. What can I say, I'm a sucker for a sing-a-long chorus and a good dance beat. And if "It's a bad bad world" like the chorus says, we can all pop The Else into the CD player, smile, and fiddle as Rome burns.

Which, I suppose, is the whole point of TMBG's music in the first place.

7.5 / 10

1 comment:

Scott Simpson said...

I lurve TMBG.