They Might Be Giants are, along with Matthew Sweet and a handful of others, what I remember of college radio from the early ‘90s. TMBG stand out for me not so much because of their so-singular-it-borders-on-proprietary sound, but because they were the first band I encountered that spawned superfans. I was pretty young in the early ‘90s, and at best my peers loved classic rock in that early, holistic, passed-on-like-a-hair-color way. At their worst they loved whatever everyone else loved that day or week or minute. They Might be Giants were different, they were the preeminent backpack band patch, the only group with geeky every-word-of-every-album fanboys, people that bonged pitchers of the TMBG Kool-Aid, people that tended to love comic books and get caught reading in class, people I liked because they made me feel better about my own lack of cool. Despite the proselytizing and protesting of their fans on bus rides and field trips, I never really got into They Might be Giants. It’s not that I didn’t like them, but to stick with the middle school analogies, I never, you know, liked them. In a way I think that makes me the ideal candidate to review their fifteenth studio album, because I’m kind of middle of the road about a band that few are.
Their new album, Join Us, offers 18 new tracks that clock in around 46 minutes, meaning they’re 18 pretty short songs, a decision that pays off. The songs are novel in both conception and execution, and the band seems aware of the novelty, aware that two to three minutes is just the right length, that quirky and irreverent work best when the song ends before you want it to. They also seem aware of who they are, their strengths, their past, what their fans like and expect, but they seem far more concerned with having a good time than any of that. Join Us is always fun, consciously clever and catchy in that “I can’t believe I’m singing to myself in the grocery store in the voice of a personified raindrop” kind of way (a raindrop does respond in character in the refrain of Track 5). It also seems like they are asking people like me, asking the non-believers to join along, to get in on the fun, to open up to the eclectic mix of sounds and ideas, songs that move between poppy rock, folky pop, sunny alternative, jokey radio rock and geeky indie pop with congenital ease. Even when you come across a song you don’t necessarily like, it’s over before you get a chance to actively dislike it. In that way they remind me of Guided by Voices; even my least favorite songs don’t get on my nerves because the album has moved on to a new idea before I’ve got stuck on the last one. They seem, throughout, to be working on us, to be converting us to their funtastic cabal, and then you come across the final track, “You Don’t Like Me,” which states bluntly that if you don’t like them by now you never will. It’s a conceit that’s hard to argue, as this is an album anyone who likes TMBG should love, and one that if you don’t, means you never will.
It hit me as I listened to Join Us that They Might be Giants not only deserve the ardent fervor of their most fervent fans, but that they have influenced such a wide array of acts many of us find ourselves a fan of, from Cake to Flight of the Conchords and so many others, that even if they don’t necessarily deserve our unrequited musical love, they certainly deserve more than our respect, they deserve our ears, for at least a few songs.