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Wednesday, 21 November 2007 00:00

Surreptitious sounds

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By Chris Cooper

Every so often a few releases slip beneath the radar, or at least my radar. Massachusetts based Rounder Records released a few (honestly, more than a few) fine recordings over the last year, notably those by endearingly oddball pop veterans They Might Be Giants and the disarmingly talented NY duo Dean and Britta.

 

They Might Be Giants: The Else

So yeah, it’s pretty much common knowledge at this point that TMBG are the best at whatever silliness they choose to pursue.

Flood constitutes the layman’s reference point, mine included, when it comes to the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. That they’ve purposefully shunned most anything resembling “commercial” acceptance and done as much as any group could do to write tunes that craftily sidestepped any chance of massive radio play, damn if you don’t recognize them within a few seconds. Be it their appearances in soundtracks, children’s music or ... really anything, the sonic identity that They Might Be Giants has developed is undeniable.

On The Else the group enlists the skills of the Dust Brothers, whose credits include anything from the Fight Club soundtrack to Beck’s Odelay to, well, Tone Loc (you know, “Wild Thing” and all that mess) to create the backdrops for their newest brainy pop excursions.

How does it pan out? The Else is likely one of the more accessible of the band’s releases, which may have been distressing for their die-hard fans initially. But the sheer normalcy of a tune like the album opener, “I’m Impressed,” with its grungy drum loop, gritty guitars and overall lack of goofy shtick, is admittedly a little alarming coming from these guys.

I couldn’t say honestly whether I would’ve recognized the song as TMBG in a blindfolded taste test, and I can’t say whether that’s a good or bad thing. But “Take Out the Trash” eases a bit back to form, the title’s metaphor meant to convince a girl to ditch her rather unsavory boyfriend. So far, so good — but not so weird.

“Climbing the Walls,” a typically twisty and hilarious tale of cabin fever experienced by one that’s recently unemployed, winks with the kind of wit you expect from TMBG . And it’s not that the first half of The Else isn’t good, because it is. But it does feel as though the band’s effort to step outside of their preconceived “sound” shifts away into a familiar, though more adventurously produced version of themselves over the album’s course. Check out the bouncing ball verse and chorus of “The Cap’m” and revel in the glory that this newer, umm... rocking duo of Giants can accomplish when they want to.

And if you need the “geography lesson” song that they can’t keep themselves from making, dig into “The Mesopotamians.” Yeah — the name “Gilgamesh” can be worked into a gloriously harmonized chorus. But only if the name of your band is They Might Be Giants. Otherwise, just don’t try it.

 

Dean & Britta: Back Numbers

When someone uses the term “chamber pop,” my mind doesn’t exactly call up anything outwardly digital sounding. I think of the stunning arrangements and slyly virtuosic playing of artists like Jason Falkner and Andrew Bird, both of whom rely mostly on good old-fashioned strings and picks, bows and drums and voices to flesh things out.

So it was a little weird to hear Dean (Wareham) and Britta (Phillips) — both formerly of Luna — making music that for all practical purposes qualifies as “chamber pop” while embracing many elements that don’t seem part and parcel to its formula. And even more disturbing — I kind of like it.

Dreamy, downright languid at times (as on “Wait For Me”) but wonderfully played, Back Numbers melds two strong vocalists, jangling acoustic guitars, the occasional oddball synthesizer and a pile of finely polished tunes into something pleasantly engaging, though sometimes so laid back that it seems to float in the air for a moment and fade away into vapor.

“The Sun Is Still Sunny” contains one of the prettiest duets on the album, with a loping pace that epitomizes “dreamy.” The delicate washes of synthesizer, brushed snare and tremolo guitar help the song build gently from verse to chorus, never quite taking off — but that’s not the intent, I don’t think.

Much of the music on Back Numbers isn’t the kind that jerks you to attention with any one detail — it’s the shimmering combination of elements, as on “White Horses,” that take you off somewhere else entirely and drop you back where you started a bit later. Same goes for the lilting “Me and My Babies,” with Phillips’ singsong melody underpinned by Wareham’s dry vocal and acoustic guitar.

Back Numbers thrives on the taste and economy of Dean and Britta as musicians, and would make a fine soundtrack to just about any day you intend to have. Nice stuff.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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