Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Money's All Broke, and Food's Going Hungry

For a long time I had managed to convince myself that I had outgrown They Might Be Giants. There wasn't necessarily a conscious decision on my part to distance myself from the group. It was as simple as noticing that, as I grew older, I wasn't listening to them nearly as often. I never completely abjured them: Lincoln and John Henry, in particular, always managed to sneak back onto the playlist at periodic intervals. But there was a growing recognition on my part of the fact that they just weren't as important to me as they once were.

And then, as they say, a funny thing happened. I moved over the summer, which you might recall me mentioning. Moving is always an ordeal, and never fails to put a person into an odd headspace. This was compounded by the length of the move (3,000 miles), and the fact that there was a new job waiting for me on the other side of the country. After the move was over and I settled into my new situation I became fascinated by a group to which I had never before paid the slightest bit of attention: the Dismemberment Plan, and specifically their 1999 masterpiece Emergency & I.

I listened to that album in near-constant rotation for at least a good month. I never really cared much for post-hardcore - hardcore never appealed to me, so post-hardcore seemed like something best avoided. Of course I mainly based these unformed opinions on bare thumbnail sketches of genre stereotypes, the truth about which I knew nothing and, furthermore, just wasn't that interested in exploring. And yet: long after the age when most people go through their DIschord faze, I found myself really digging Fugazi and poking my toes ever so tentatively into the DC scene. Although it took me a few listens to really get the feel for the album, Emergency & I finally appeared to me as a kind of revelation: here was an album with a depth of field to rival OK Computer or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a precise and exacting whole that nevertheless managed to seem spontaneous and raw. It's not hard to see how this band and this album in particular have exerted such a massive influence on the later evolution of post-hardcore into poppier forms such as emo in the early 2000s. But then again: there's a cerebral quality that places the group apart from lesser contemporaries and followers, and a mordant sense of truly mature melancholy (not to mention a sense of humor!) that removes them from the immediate company of the more obnoxiously heart-on-hand varieties of post-punk and pop-punk.

But a funny thing happened as I was getting into the Dismemberment Plan. I began to notice something strange. It was subtle, at first, more of a general association than a specific connection. But the more I listened, the more I saw previously-hidden connections. There was something about the precise combination of intense playing and nervous energy, a sense of tweaked urgency that came across like someone having wound the clock too tight. Travis Morrison's vocals in particular seem just slightly too high to be singing the songs he's singing, nervy and anxious and completely emasculated. The band gets pegged as "math rock," and I suppose I can see the connection: the drums are sharp and the rhythms complex, marked by off-beat syncopations and persistent, unexpected lunges in odd directions.

I don't know and can't say whether or not the Dismemberment Plan were consciously influenced by They Might Be Giants, but listening to the former I was struck by their incredible similarity to the latter. Lyrically, the D-Plan seem to share a preoccupation with tongue-twisters and speculative fiction metaphors as a means of moving past bathetic cliche. TMBG play with the kind of exacting precision that could only come from spending the first decade of your career playing catch-up to drum machines and pre-programmed synthesizer tracks. The D-Plan take the energy and propulsion of punk and filter it through a sparse, disciplined asceticism that owes as much to Television as anything else in the punk canon. If they weren't specifically influenced by TMBG, they were playing within a certain segment of the rock vocabulary that simply hadn't existed before TMBG.

Listening to the Dismemberment Plan awakened a sudden, fresh desire to revisit some old friends. By chance, this coincided with the release of the Johns' latest album, Join Us. One of the reasons why I had moved away from the group was the fact that they released a couple not-so-good albums in the first part of the last decade. Mink Car and especially The Spine seemed to be thin on my first exposure and have not grown in succeeding years. The Else was stronger and it sounded good thanks to the participation of the Dust Brothers, but it never quite made it into my permanent shuffle. Unfortunately, considering how much I loved the group in years past, They Might Be Giants had dropped off my radar entirely. I've never felt so much as the slightest interest in their kids albums: although I can't begrudge their success, it always seemed to me to be the exact wrong move for the group to make, a doubling-down of precisely those traits that I found least endearing in their sound as I grew older. They were always silly, but their best moments (to my mind) came when they could work through silly and wacky towards something more authentically anxious on the other side. Much of their catalog, at least their older material, is actually quite dark. Of their classic period, Flood has always been my least favorite album, while I cling to the profoundly misanthropic and dyspeptic John Henry as the underrated masterpiece of their oeuvre. There didn't seem to be a lot in their kids' records to hold my interest.

Given my ambivalence towards their last decade's worth of output, imagine my surprise to fine in Join Us that rarest of rarities: a true, honest-to-God return to classic form from a band who I had written off years ago. None of these songs would have seemed out of place on any of their Elektra records. And so after a few a listens to Join Us I felt a sudden, familiar urge: let's listen to They Might Be Giants. Let's really listen, closely, for the first time in a long time. What I found was that, after having been away for many years, coming back to records with which I once had such an intimate familiarity elicited a strange but not unpleasant sensation. At the risk of sliding into the realm of pure nostalgia, it felt like coming home.

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