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They Might Be Giants – The Else

The Else is at least the most consistent album that They Might Be Giants have released yet.

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With the release of The Else, it is beginning to sink in for me that They Might Be Giants have been doing this for a long time. Considering their core fan base of nerdy boys, it would be easy for TMBG to stick with the pattern that initially made them famous and ride it from now ‘til the nerds die out (and I plan on sticking around for a bit). But I admire them because they have never been content to remain stuck in a particular pigeonhole—instead they would probably write a song about the pigeonhole that is alternately painstakingly literal and mindbogglingly absurd, and then move on.

Unfortunately, the Johns’ efforts to push themselves have not always yielded critical accolades, though they have usually yielded rabid fan support. Apollo 18 was widely panned at the time (“they stopped playing those funny electronic instruments”), but is a perennial fan favorite now, not least of all for the Residents-inspire “fingertip songs”—distillations of the pop song down to its bare essentials, or about 15 seconds. More recently, TMBG has explored children’s music (No!Here Come the ABCs), have pushed the limits of what can be considered an album (the download only Long Tall Weekend), and challenged themselves to a venue-specific songwriting contest—against themselves (Venue Songs).

Which brings us about up to date (ignoring major discographical holes in my chronology). The Else finds John and John experimenting in two ways, apparently no longer content to go out on a limb just once per album anymore. First of all, they have brought in the Dust Brothers as producers. E.Z. Mike and King Gizmo are not the first names that spring to mind as potential TMBG producers, which is quite likely why the band hired them in the first place. Second, the band has undertaken a Soderberghian experiment in release dates. As of this writing, The Else has already technically been released via iTunes, where it reached #1 on the alternative charts within the first day. However, the physical disk—not entirely unlike the one I hold in my hands at this moment—is not scheduled for release until July 10th. I will have to wait patiently to see how this second experiment pans out. As for sticking DB behind the boards, I can check that out right now.

There is certainly something funkier about They Might Be Giants. The distorted drum machine on “I’m Impressed,” or the funky fuzz bass on “Take Out the Trash,” does sound more Odelay than Lincoln. Somehow, if only for a few moments at a time, They Might Be Giants could be mistaken for a “normal” band on The Else. Of course, they just might be making fun of “normal” bands. How else could a banal phrase like “Girl, come on take out the trash” become the rousing refrain of a good old-fashioned rave up? Because it is a sharper metaphor than most “normal” bands could come create.

The band hasn’t changed greatly since The Spine. The touch of the Dust Brothers is fairly evident, but TMBG is still rocking the sound of a full band, and they are probably still the smartest guys in popular music – though “popular” is always a stretch for They Might Be Giants. Where the band has made the most strides is in their lyrical subject matter. They are more literal (though not entirely, of course). On The Else, the a lot of TMBG’s material is found in popular music itself, taking the norm and skewing it, like on “The Cap’m,” which begins as a bluntly realistic love song. “Do you think there’s somebody out there / Somebody else who’s better than the one you’ve got? / Well, there’s not.” Then it veers into the realm of the absurd, ground frequently tread by the band.

What is most surprising about The Else is how close it comes to sincerity, often nearly touching the heartstrings before yanking away, as on “With the Dark.” “She’s in love with her broken heart / She’s in love with the dark,” they begin. Then, as though afraid of how close they have come to normal, punchy horns break up the pastoral ambiance of the opening stanza and “el otro Juan” breaks in “I’m getting tired of all my nautical dreams / I’m getting tired of all my nautical dreams.” Now the song is about a pirate. For this verse, anyway. Of course, there is fair time spent in familiar territory, like “Shadow Government” which is about exactly what it sounds like – or rather, is about “Where’s the shadow government when you need it?” This is They Might Be Giants, however, which means that there has been more thought put into their lyrics than I have the time to exposit at the moment (I trust most of you remember “Birdhouse in Your Soul”).

The Else is at least the most consistent album that They Might Be Giants have released yet. There is not a song that does not delight musically, lyrically, or holistically. The Johns’ witty wordplay also ensures good replay value, as the gamers say, and the Dust Brother’s production – in collaboration with Patrick Dillett – fleshes out the band’s sound like never before. I suppose The Elsemay just be a sign of They Might Be Giants maturing a bit. But, thankfully, only a bit.

(Zoe Records)

Interviews

Like a Hurricane: An Interview with Year of the Fist

Year of the Fist are a much needed short in the arm of rock music. We chat to vocalist/guitarist Squeaky.

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Oakland based rock n’ roll band Year of the Fist are the kind of the rock n’ roll band you can’t bring home to meet mom. Evoking the sounds made famous by labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Year of the Fist are “a hurricane of swirling rock n’ roll poundage”. Unrelenting and visceral, their music is the unforgiving wave in a sea of safe rock music; a sentiment best exemplified by their brand new full-length album, Revive Me. And like the title itself, Year of the Fist are a much-needed shot of energy; raw, no-frills, and urgent.

We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Squeaky, who, along with the band, have just returned from a short trek through California and Nevada to showcase their new album. We talk about the history of the band, their fantastic new record, Oakland, small-town shows, and rock n’ roll.

Congrats on the new record- reception has been positive to it (we loved it)- how do you all feel?

We are all very happy with the way the album turned out. The last year and a half working on felt like an eternity but it’s done and I am stoked.

How did the writing and recording for the record go? It sounds fantastic- did you self-produce or work with someone in the studio?

The album is self-produced and the recording was a multi-step and studio process.  We were lucky to work in some amazing studios with some terrific engineers.

Do you have a favorite song from the new record? Or maybe one you all love playing live in particular?

I believe I can speak for everyone when I say “Ghosts” is one of our favorites off this album to play live. And speaking for myself, “Red Lights Flash” is another one I really like playing. 

Revive Me is your third full length; what were some of the things you wanted to get done with this record- things maybe you learned from the two LPs prior?

It is actually of 2nd full length. In between the two, we released a 4 song EP.  To be honest, I always have an idea in my head on how I am going to approach something and it never works that way. There is always a curveball, an emotion, a gut feeling that pulls you a different direction. So I am trying to get better at going into something with no direction to be honest ….. we’ll see how that works out.

You are based in Oakland- are you guys all from the area and how did Year of the Fist come together?

Our lead guitarist, Katie, is the only member from the Bay Area. I am from the East Coast. Our drummer, Hal, is from the Mid-West and our bassist, Serge, is from Russia. Hal & I met on tour in different bands, I believe sometime in 2006. He lived in Washington and I was in California. Hal eventually moved down to Oakland and we started YOTF in 2011. We anticipated it being a 2 piece band but after writing the first few songs we knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew Katie from playing shows throughout the Bay Area,  so she jumped on board, then skip ahead 8 years, we found our bassist, Serge. We played with several bass players over the years but now I feel we have found our fit. Serge was one of us within minutes of meeting him.

Do you remember what your first experience with rock n’ roll was? Was it a show, something on the radio, a record, or a band?

I was raised in a rock n roll household so I don’t recall a 1st experience, my upbringing was the experience. As far as going to punk shows, I was living in Richmond, VA and I went to my first punk show at 12 or 13. I was immediately drawn to the energy. I was already playing guitar but after seeing a hundred punks packed into a tiny, sweaty club and feeding off the energy coming off the stage I knew I wanted to be the one on the stage.

What makes Oakland a good place for a rock n’ roll band? Is it the venues, the community?

Oakland has its ups and down with good punk venues to be honest. It seems we will have a ton of good rock venues for a few years and then it takes a nosedive for a few years. It’s tricky like that. Oakland is such a diverse city it keeps every band from being full of a bunch of white straight men. It’s a breath of fresh air.

And some of you pull double duty in multiple bands?

We sure do. Hal & I are in a 2 piece rock band called Cut-Rate Druggist while Katie has a solo project that goes by her name, Katie Cash, and a rock/funk band called Skip The Needle. Serge is the only smart one by not burning the candle at both ends.

You played a bunch of shows in July- across California and then to Nevada- what are some of the things you enjoy most about being able to play these songs live?

We just wrapped up that quick 4-day run and it was terrific. There is nothing like seeing people singing the words you wrote, seeing their body move to a particular part in a song that makes your body move the same way, to have someone tell you how much a song means to them. It is so therapeutic. It is the best shrink that I have ever had.

I used to live in Stockton; it was a tough place when I lived there. But it was always exciting to know bands stopped by (when they did)- how important it is to you guys to find new cities and towns to play in each tour?

Really? You lived in Stockton? What a small world!! 

I really enjoy playing smaller cities/towns. The crowd isn’t as jaded as big cities. I don’t mean that as an insult, hell, I am probably one of those jaded people. Living in a big city you can see awesome local and touring bands any day of the week, it gets taken for granted. When you go to a smaller city that has 2, maybe 1 rock show a month, people appreciate that you drove 4-6 hours to get there.

What are the plans for Year of the Fist for the rest of the year and beyond?

We have some light US touring in the fall along with playing FEST in Gainesville, FL. And maybe getting some rest!

Year of the Fist’s new album Revive Me is available now via Heart On Records.

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Reviews

Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth

Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype

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Pretty Vicious

The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.

Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.

There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.

You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.

It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.

(Big Machine / John Varvatos Records)

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