For They Might Be Giants’ newest album, they decided to reach back into their history for inspiration. In the band’s early days, they were known for their Dial-a-Song service, in which they would record new songs into an answering machine. Fans could call a number, and the answering machine would pick up and play the song in lieu of a greeting. The novelty of this service gained the band media attention, and helped increase their visibility in the mainstream. The original Dial-a-Song service was discontinued in 2006, but TMBG decided to bring it back in 2015. Fans can dial a toll-free number (844-387-6962) to hear a song just like in the original service, or they can go to dialasong.com to hear songs recorded for the project and subscribe to it. Possibly taking inspiration from their friend Jonathan Coulton, TMBG decided to release a new song every week for a year through Dial-a-Song, and their latest studio album Glean is a compliation of some of those songs.
One would expect such an album not to have much cohesion, since the songs are not conceived and recorded as a unit. However, there are some common threads running through each song. Danny Weinkauf’s bass parts take center stage in many of them, starting with the first track, “Erase,” where it drives the melody forward. “Underwater Woman” is another example of the bass taking center stage.
The songs from Glean also showcase the band’s classic sound more than any of their two most recent albums, Join Us and Nanobots, did. “Erase,” “Underwater Woman,” and “Aaa” could’ve easily fit on any of their albums from the early 90s, and songs like “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel,” display their nerd-rock sensibilities. “Answer” is another song that shows their penchant for delivering negative lyrics wrapped in an upbeat package. “Hate the Villanelle” reminds me of a sped-up and more instrument-heavy version of their 1988 song “Pencil Rain.” The only drawback of this return to the classic sound is that the album gets repetitive in stretches, with that classic instrumental part tweaked slightly with different lyrics. I wonder if this isn’t also a consequence of their “song a week” project. Fortunately, the album does have some variety with songs like “Let Me Tell You About My Operation,” which I picture as part of a humorous moment in a Broadway musical where someone tells an ex-boy/girlfriend that they’re better off without them. The song’s trumpets and drum parts give it a very strong jazz feel with the bouncy danceability of a musical. More experimental sounds come in “I’m a Coward” and the title track, “Glean,” which is an instrumental that sounds like it could be part of an ad jingle from the 50s.
The lyrical themes on this album are a little less opaque than I’m used to seeing from TMBG, too. The aforementioned “…Operation” is probably my favorite, due to its cheerful fuck-you attitude. “Erase,” where the main character urges another to erase their memories of the past in order to move forward, is interesting as well. “Underwater Woman” describes someone who has isolated herself from the world and lives in her own head, which I can relate to on a few levels. Probably the most interesting set of lyrics is in “Music Jail pt. 1 & 2.” The main character invites others to form a band with him and “join [him] in music jail.” I wonder if this is some sort of commentary on the music industry, which suffers from a (deserved) reputation for corruption and exploitation of artists. In order to crack the mainstream, a band or singer must exile themselves to the “jail” of the industry. Hopefully, because of the Internet, digital distribution, and websites like PledgeMusic, that business model will soon die out.
Overall, this album fits in nicely with their post-2000 releases. It has a good mix of experimental sounds while also displaying the same qualities that made TMBG great in the past, which is what I thought Nanobots was lacking. So I think you should buy it. It’s probably a decent starting place if you’re just getting into TMBG (though one of their classic albums like Flood is probably better), and will please longtime fans.
“Let Me Tell You About My Operation”