Live Review: They Might Be Giants; second quarter album reviews roundup (in the column); Jake Bellows’ debuts on Saddle Creek…
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Here’s a surprise coming from a veteran band with a handful of gold (and platinum) albums throughout their legendary career: The best song of the night came from their new album.
Sure, you got usual run of faves: “Istanbul,” “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (How many thousands of times have they had to sing that song throughout their lives? I wonder if they would have written it had they known beforehand), “The Guitar,” etc., but the real connection came from a revved-up version of “You’re On Fire,” the first song of the encore (and the first song on Nanobots, their new release) and first time I felt any real energy coming off the stage.
The duo have grown old before our own aging eyes. Instead of the dapper, pipe-smoking Mad Man extra we remember from their early videos, Flansburgh now looks like a shaggy Kevin Smith bouncing around all roly-poly with his guitar; while ol’ slouched Linnell is finally beginning to resemble the 53-year-old guy that he is, shuffling between his keyboard and accordion, rarely smiling or looking up, tired. Maybe he was saving his energy for his voice, which has a darker timbre than on the early recordings but still carries that same unique, woody quality (Flansburgh’s nasal croon hasn’t changed a bit).
I’ve always (wrongfully) written these guys off as novelty nerd music, chock full o’ odd syncopated rhythms, tight-riff guitars, countless lurching breaks and odd lyrics that sound like they were written by a couple Mathletes killing time during detention (for doing something wise-ass like correcting their history teacher in front of the rest of the class). But perhaps the two Johns had a plan all along, and knew they’d be able to sing these unconventional, wonky tunes ‘til very late in their lives without sounding like a couple pervs (see Rolling Stones recent viral vid of “As Tears Go By” featuring Taylor Swift).
There was genuine charm as they ran rapid-fire through their set of short, sharp pop songs like a couple hip teachers singing a hyper-active version of Schoolhouse Rock to an audience of their nerdy disciples (I’ve never seen more people wearing eyeglasses in one room). Even when they switched to hand puppets during the mid-set break you couldn’t help but smile.
The fact that they’re creating some of their best material at this point in their career (Nanobots is their best album since Flood, which is their best album) is a testament to their creative spark. “You’re On Fire,” could be a conventional hit if there was a way to get it heard now that radio has all but died. Despite a few kooky moments, this album is closer to a straight-forward rock album, and Linnell’s keyboards (especially live) remind me of early Steve Nieve (Elvis Costello). And while EC’s songwriting trajectory over the past decade has been spotty (and boring), TMBG’s songs never fail to bounce with characteristic spark and whimsy.
That said, maybe it had something to do with my view of the stage (the usual stage left wing) but Linnell tottered around like he was fulfilling an obligation. Flansburgh, however, still looked and sounded like someone having fun, at least as much fun as the folks in the near capacity crowd, come to see some old friends.
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Speaking of reviews, this week’s column is a the second-quarter CD reviews roundup, featuring a few reviews regular Lazy-i readers have already seen along reviews of new Low, Daft Punk, Art Brut, BIg Star, Statistics, John Klemmensen and the Party, etc. You can read it in this week’s issue of The Reader, or online right here.
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That sexy, sassy guitar-playing troubadour Jake Bellows, formerly of the late, great Neva Dinova, announced yesterday that his debut solo album New Ocean will be released on Saddle Creek Aug. 6.
According to the press release, the album was recorded at ARC Studios with engineer Ben Brodin (Before the Toast and Tea, Conor Oberst), Ryan Fox (The Good Life), Todd Fink (The Faint), and Heath Koontz (Neva Dinova). New Ocean is available for pre-order on CD & LP via Saddle Creek and limited edition cassette through Majestic Litter (yes, cassette!).
The back story:
“After fronting Neva Dinova for more than 15 years which included five full-lengths, a split EP, and countless tours, he packed up his dog and moved from his native Omaha to his girlfriend’s hometown of Los Angeles. Two days before he left he recorded 18 demos with musician and engineer Ben Brodin at Brodin’s insistence. Once in L.A., Bellows got a job installing sliding-glass doors and sold his Les Paul to buy a Datsun pick-up truck.
“Though he had no plans to form a new band, he played the occasional solo show, performed with Whispertown, and continued to write songs. In early 2011, an invitation arrived from Omaha’s Film Streams Theater for Jake’s old friend Ryan Fox also living on the West Coast, to perform an original live film score. Fox enlisted Bellows and Brodin to collaborate and the trio began to compose and discuss improvisational ideas over long-distance. Since they were all going to be in Omaha and had a long history of playing in each other’s bands, Brodin and Fox nudged Bellows into booking studio time to record some of his dormant songs.
“Fox and Bellows drove from LA to Omaha that November in a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle that didn’t have heat, a speedometer, a fuel gauge, seatbelts, or radio. They made it as far as Lincoln, NE, before the car caught fire at 4 in the morning. Later that week the trio performed the score to The Adventures of Prince Achmed. That weekend, they entered ARC Studios for a feverish recording session, arranging and writing parts on the fly with an impromptu band including Heath Koontz, Todd Fink, Whispertown bandmate Morgan Nagler and other old friends. Committing quickly to intuitive arrangements the band recorded 17 tracks in a little more than a week. They worked remotely on the record throughout that winter and spring, adding overdubs in basements and bedrooms across western North America.
“The group reunited in Omaha to debut the new songs at a couple of shows one week the following June. Excited to release the new material on their own terms the band put out a preview EP on cassette, Help, at the end of 2012. The new music is underpinned by philosophical conviction and shaped by an interest in physics, cosmology and mythology. Bellows returned to music with a renewed sense of the intrinsic value of art and its ability to express the commonality of human experience. His debut full-length, New Ocean, offers a mix tape of different kinds of songs hanging out on one record – love songs that are not necessarily ballads despite their introspective gauziness, with left turns into drunk-in-the-sun bossa nova and blue-eyed-soul ruptured by fuzz guitar. Bellows believes that songs change the fabric of the universe through the very frequencies they emit. As such, the record attempts to create the world he wants to see instead of reflect the world that is. ‘Our theory of the beginning of the universe is the big bang – a sound,’ Bellows said. ‘What gave birth to the universe is our one tool that we can change the universe with.’”
I’ve got a feeling he’ll be headed back to good ol’ Omaha on the upcoming tour. Call it a victory lap.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.