The world of alternative rock of late has been taken over by too manyflannel-clad lead singers, too many distortion pedals, and too many major labelshoping to sign the next Nirvana. To be deemed alternative now, all one needs area few indecipherable lyrics, some well-placed feedback, and a few stage divers intheir videos hurling themselves into swarms of sweaty bodies all acting as thoughthey invented slam-dancing. After awhile it all appears the same. That is whylistening to “John Henry,” They Might Be Giants’ fifth full-length album, is sucha refreshing and rewarding experience. There are no contrived images and phonyposturing, just well-crafted songs, amusing lyrics, and the usual bit ofquirkiness that defines all of the They Might Be Giants’ albums.
“JohnHenry” marks the debut of TMBG’s full piece band which augments nicely JohnFlansburgh’s and John Linnell’s off-center lyrics and steady vocals, providing apleasant listening experience. As with other TMBG albums, “John Henry” presentssongs that deal with all sorts of topics which, on the surface, appear ashumorous songs with catchy sing-along-able hooks.
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However, as one probes deeperinto the lyrics, one finds TMBG singing about not-so-humorous topics such asthought control, depression, and recluse artists. On the laid back “Dirt Bike,”the band uses the title as an odd metaphor for brainwashing institutions (“Allhail the dirt bike, philosopher dirt bike … Mind bending dirt bike incontrol”). This theme is continued in the song “I Should be Allowed to Think”which incorporates the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s classic poem, “Howl” intothe lyrics. On the lighter side, TMBG deals with the problem of a wandering mindon “Unrelated Thing.” The clever lyrics include: “Do you smile ’cause I’mfunny? said the man./I wasn’t joking and I meant the thing I said./Not at all,not at all,/said the woman to the man./I was thinking of an unrelated thing.”Continuing to mix the serious with the whimsical, TMBG shines on “John Henry.”