They Might Be Giants are in a comfortable and casual phase of their career now, because, well, were they ever not? The indie pop rock vets are reentering the universe after a decade-long checkout from the game, during which they put out a series of children’s albums, perhaps heeding the adage about having to go away in order to come back — but more likely because of course they did. Long before Here Come the ABC’s, there was always a charming “ABC” philosophy central to TMBG’s songcraft: chords and melodies light on supplement, well articulated vocals and tracking, and a penchant for storytelling – which never loosened its grip on the absurd and utterly goofy, cultivating a signature brand of nonsense rock via no-nonsense songwriting.
This point-blank approach that made them great children’s composers was the same quality that inspired no shortage of contemporary songwriting-focused rock bands – including Titus Andronicus, who slipped in a subtle reference to “Particle Man” in their latest album. Nanobots is their second full-length since their stint for the kids, following up 2011’s Join Us and coming at the heels of its preview EP from January. In short, it provides everything fans would hope for in spades. These are indeed the Giants of old.
Again though, was there ever really a reinvention to begin with? The contrast between their kid’s songs and that of Join Us and Nanobots is predictably narrow, especially considering they’ve always operated around the intersection between rock song and educational jingle. Multiple tracks appear to have been scooped up off the cutting room floors, namely “Tesla” (an apparent candidate for Here Comes Science), the 17-second “Nouns”, and perhaps “Call You Mom” (“I think I’d like to call you Mom / ‘Cause you remind me of my Mom”). Elsewhere, songs including “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” and “Stuff Is Way” go all-out non-sequitur above some of Nanobots’ danciest offerings.
One key note on Nanobots then, given its general lack of new things to take note of, is in the surface stats: 25 tracks crammed into 45 minutes, including nine delightfully incomplete ideas under a minute long (think longer “Fingertips” from Apollo 18), the most they’ve ever included on an LP. While their catalog is littered with cuts well under standard pop song length, it’s surprising they’ve never indulged in song fragments this much, as they serve their hyperactive and persistently funny persona so beautifully. Take “Tick”, which at 12 seconds encompasses their legacy with “If it wasn’t for that tick, we would not be in this predicament / Not be in this predicament that we’re in!” over exactly seven ascending piano triads. Short, sweet, simple, and silly and whether you’re five or 50, that’s a universal language.
Essential tracks: “Nanobots”, “Tesla”