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Album Review: They Might Be Giants – Idlewild

3 min read

Let’s assume that there are more of you reading this who have spent a drunken night arm-in-arm with your buddies howling “You’re not the boss of me nooooooow!” from the Malcolm in the Middle theme than there are those of you who haven’t. The same goes for those of you who have included the quirky anthem Dr. Worm on a roadtrip/’90s party playlist. For these precious memories, you mainly have two men to thank: John Flansburgh and John Linnell who comprise the core lineup of Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants. Over an almost unbelievable 32-year career which to date has left an amazing 16 studio album legacy, their particular brand of leftfield pop has kept fans and casual observers constantly on their toes. While they’ve consistently released rock-solid pop albums since 1986, other than these two mid-‘90s high points, TMBG have existed largely under the mainstream radar but this is possibly the very thing that’s allowed them to travel to such far corners of the pop framework as evidenced by this month’s Idlewild compilation.

They Might Be Giants - IdlewildThe fact that these two classics (as well as others like Birdhouse In Your Soul or Ana Ng) aren’t included is notable, however this collection has been described by the band’s officials as “neither a ‘best-of’ or ‘rarities’ set”, yet it serves as a pretty great cross-section of the band’s career since 1999’s Long Tall Weekend record from which the slacker-ized Queen-via-Elton-John ballad Certain People I Could Name (ie. The oldest inclusion on Idlewild) is pulled. Focusing fairly heavily on the last decade or so of TMBG’s output, it’s hard to pin down exactly where to file a compilation like this. “Pop” would be the easiest label to slap on it, but the vaguely hip-hop influence and New Orleans brass on Cloisonné and The Lady and the Tiger (Both from 2011’s Join Us) sit somewhat at odds with the sweetheart alt-country of Tesla or the disco/rockabilly hybrid of You’re On Fire (Also both from the same 2013 record Nanobots) but instead of feeling jarring and disjointed, Idlewild feels like a well considered hors d’oeuvres plate for potential converts who just want to dip their toe in the vast waters of They Might Be Giants.

The “anything goes” ethos to which the band have undeniably subscribed over the years is in glorious effect on a compilation like this with the punk/polka mashup of Damn Good Times flowing seamlessly into the gorgeous 1 minute 32 seconds of Words Are Like which in turn slips into the powerpop of Can’t Keep Johnny Down without so much as batting an eyelid. I’m Impressed from 2007’s The Else sounds like a Nine Inch Nails song with a sense of humour about itself before the carefree, Sesame-Street lullaby pop of Careful What You Pack slides into the ‘70s funk workout of Clap Your Hands.

The collection rounds out with Electronic Istanbul, a delightfully meta (read: cover-of-a-cover) reworking of their 1990 version of the big-band standard Istanbul (Not Constantinople) with squelchy, resonating synths and vocoders replacing the fiddle and accordion of their original.

All in all, if you’re a They Might Be Giants fan already, this will only remind you what an incredibly diverse band they can be with almost every sub-genre of pop music getting a respectable nod here on Idlewild and for those who aren’t, buying this record will definitely set you on the right path.