Whether you have the hipster cred to know of them or not, you’re more than likely to have unknowingly heard a song or two by They Might Be Giants in the past five years. When the duo of Johns aren’t writing award-winning children’s albums or songs for commercials and motion pictures, they’re in the studio working on their next offering of quirky nerd-rock. “Join Us” is the Giants’ latest “adult” entry in their catalog following 2007’s “The Else”. The album has been hyped more than usual thanks in no small part to John Flansburgh, who shares vocal duties and plays rhythm guitar; the introduction of the first official They Might be Giants Instant Fan Club and the myriad of exclusive goodies available to that group, not to mention a fan-video contest and Flansburgh’s presence on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr have more than helped in speeding along the July 19th release of the 18-track “Join Us,” which is already at #6 on the iTunes chart.
Join Us kicks off with the first song released prior to the album, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” a classic Giants number, and definite single material. It has the same upbeat sound coupled with sardonic lyrics from the narrator’s perspective, a technique that TMBG has perfected over the years.
As is typical with They Might Be Giants, every track on the album is its own self-contained song; they don’t require the other songs to work, but still fit comfortably alongside each other. “You Probably Get That A Lot” shines lyrically with unabashed female admiration, while ‘When Will You Die” wastes no breath in communicating the narrator’s intentions, and is instrumentally strong to boot. Almost every single track on “Join Us” tangents into some section of experimentalism, and some, like “Spoiler Alert,” with stereo-separated vocal tracks, and ‘Dog Walker,” with a disjointed drum intro and a heavily filtered vocal track, hearken back to TMBG’s earliest albums, where every song had an offbeat, experimental edge that has been largely absent since the band transitioned from a two-piece to a five-piece in 1992. Other stand-out pieces include “Old Pine Box,” a clever track that makes use of a MicroKorg vocoder and is described by John Flansburgh as being “about a burnout (but not sung by one!),” “Canajoharie” and “Judy Is Your Viet Nam,” uptempo rock companions to “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” “Celebration,” which features in-the-know cultural references, and “The Lady And The Tiger,” which has a catchy shuffle feel to it, plus a fantastic horn arrangement.
The album is not without its low points; “Never Knew Love” is a meandering ballad (or at least as ballad-esque as one can expect of TMBG, whose songs rarely dip below 120 BPM) without any particularly interesting climaxes, and “Cloisonné” is instrumentally bare aside from a trill-filled horn outro that doesn’t quite fit. “2082” and “Let Your Hair Hang Down” are also middling tracks with little lyrical or instrumental hooks.
Overall, “Join Us” is more of an album for people who are already fans of They Might Be Giants; there are far more laid-back tracks than the casual fan who is familiar with standards such as “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” “Boss Of Me,” and “Don’t Let’s Start,” might enjoy. Aside from the few rock pieces offered, “Join Us” also misses the sort of more aggressive rock numbers such as “Withered Hope” and “I’m Impressed” off of “The Else” that help vary the mood. The experimental edge to it definitely makes the album feel like an ambitious entry in the Giants’ catalog, very much like a “third first album” as John Flansburgh has referred to it. Hardcore fans will snap this release up and listen to it endlessly for the next four months until the band comes to town; casual fans, meanwhile, will want to stick to “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” “Canajoharie,” “Celebration,” and “Judy Is Your Viet Nam,” as well as pick up the compilation album “A User’s Guide To They Might Be Giants.”