Few bands seek to release a song a week, as They Might Be Giants did with their Dial-a-Song Direct project last year. Fewer still can manage to weave a coherent album out of the weekly tracks either. While their first album from the project, Glean, stood tall among their best, it didn’t really have much of a common thread running through the songs. I would say that their latest album is the reverse. Why? doesn’t have as many killer singles as Glean, but it feels more like a planned product than the previous album did.
They Might Be Giants marketed Why? as a kids’ album, which made me think it might be the spiritual successor to No!, their first non-thematic kids’ album (unlike Here Come the ABCs or Here Come the 123s). Its title even indicates this, as “Why?” is usually every child’s response to an adult’s “No!” The first thing that struck me about this album, as touched on above, is that it feels more like a coherent unit. Despite largely being a collection of songs from another project, they are all geared toward a younger audience, such as “Oh You Did,” which was one of two songs not from Dial-a-Song Direct that was added to this album. The song takes the form of a conversation between a parent (sung by John Flansburgh’s wife Robin Goldwasser) and a child (sung by Flansburgh and John Linnell, TMBG’s main duo). Other songs talk of strange and mythical creatures (“Omnicorn”), animals going on a rampage (“Elephants,” with bassist Danny Weinkauf handling vocal duties), and the sort of unabashed silliness that kids love and TMBG is known for (“Walking My Cat Named Dog”).
Though, as all good kids media does, Why? seeks to teach as much as it seeks to entertain. “And Mom and Kid” was released on Dial-a-Song the same week that the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Rather than directly praising the decision, the song shows that families come in many different combinations (“…and dad and dad and kid and kid and mom and dad and kid and gram…”). “Then The Kids Took Over,” which is another song that was added, the band speaks to both adults and kids, showing them how important conservation and recycling are if they want to leave the planet in a good state when future generations take over. I like that they’re talking about important issues without shoving them into your face Rage Against the Machine-style. They wrap it in a fun package the way shows like Captain Planet used to. “Or So I Have Read” is the sort of song designed for the person that believes everything they read on the Internet.
Another common thread running through this album is how straightforward it is. Each song has a pretty standard rock formula of drums, guitar, bass, and vocals. There is precious little of the distortion or weird sounds like on “Robot Parade” from No! “Long White Beard” comes closest, with its trippy, dreamlike sound that fits the lyrics. This helps to make the songs simpler and more fun without devolving into an impenetrable cloud of weirdness, which TMBG’s music tends to do from time to time (I wonder if “Thinking Machine” is the band’s way of poking fun at themselves for this). Just because it’s straightforward, though, doesn’t mean it’s boring or poorly executed. “And Mom and Kid” features a xylophone-like instrument that adds a lot. The bass line of “Hello Mrs. Wheelyke” provides solid support for the vocal track and stands out as an especially solid performance.
While I think it’s probably a notch below Glean, I would give Why? a borrow it rating. It is still catchy and enjoyable, and proves that even though They Might Be Giants can crank out songs with the best of them, the quality rarely suffers. Here are my track picks:
“Oh You Did”
“I Am Invisible’