The third album to be compiled from tracks that They Might Be Giants released on their rebooted Dial-A-Song service on YouTube during 2015, Phone Power has been released as a pay-what-you-want download, and will be released in more traditional formats in the future.
So far, so Radiohead. TMBG fans knew that a third album of Dial-a-Song material would be released at some point in early 2016, but the announcement of its imminent release was a pleasant surprise, however it was never going to get tongues wagging in the same way that surprise releases by the likes of Beyonce, U2 and My Bloody Valentine have in recent years. TMBG also have a well-earned reputation for being immensely generous to their fanbase, having released a couple of free-to-download live albums in recent years. This has resulted in their fans becoming increasingly loyal in turn, willing to put their hands in their pockets for all manner of rarities and limited edition releases. Despite their lack of chart action down the years, few bands understand the band / fan relationship as well as TMBG do.
You’d think that with a live recording and three studio albums released within twelve months that TMBG could be accused of at least flooding the market with their output, if not spreading themselves far too thinly. I have to admit that was my initial reaction when I first listened to Phone Power, leading me to wonder if the Two Johns were on the verge of creative burnout. After all, on that first listen, other that Marty Beller’s drum intro which kicks off album opener “Apophenia”, not much seemed to stand out beyond the band’s wonderfully energetic tear through “Bills, Bills, Bills”, their cover of the Destiny’s Child hit which has proven to be a highlight of their live shows in recent years.
Could TMBG’s prolific output have finally stopped paying dividends? After all, they’ve already announced that their current brace of live shows would be their last tour for the foreseeable future. Is Phone Power a dud?
Of course it isn’t. You don’t clock up a three decade plus career without playing to your strengths from time to time. They Might be Giants know that fans have been calling out for “Bills, Bills, Bills” to be released as a studio track for some time now, so why not put it on an album that may require multiple listens to appreciate? Phone Power is an album that reveals something else every time you listen to it, eventually emerging like a sort of audio armada sailing out of a musical mist, song by song, listen by listen. While “Bills, Bills, Bills” may be the flagship of the album, that’s not to say that it continues to dominate the album after repeated listens, as songs such as “Say Nice Things About Detroit”, “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin” and “Got Getting Up So Down” reveal themselves to be splendid examples of modern songcraft. And not only is “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” a great song, but it also boasts a title that Half Man Half Biscuit would be proud of.
Quite why TMBG have effectively offered an album which is something of a ‘grower’ for free is a little puzzling, as newcomers to the band may not invest the time in it that it deserves. After all, this was part of U2’s problem a couple of years back, however unlike Songs of Innocence is an album that continues to repay those repeated listens. Perhaps Glean, the first album compiled from Dial-a-Song material would have been the obvious choice to offer as pay-what-you-want download, as it is a little more immediate and could potentially have seen newcomers to the band engage with the Dial-a-Song YouTube channel more frequently. As a pure listening experience, Phone Power is pretty much on a par with it’s two Dial-a-Song siblings, though it’s nowhere near as immediate as Glean, and the fact that Why? is an album of music created to appeal to children, means comparison is a little more difficult. It doesn’t take an immense leap of imagination to see that the trio of albums could easily be packaged together in a deluxe Dial-a-Song box set at some point in the future. Ultimately, Phone Power, much like it’s siblings, is a collection of contemporaneous songs rather than an album with a distinct mood. Much of that is down to the fact that the individual songs had originated as stand-alone tunes, so it’s all credit to TMBG for managing to make it sound as cohesive as it does.
As an album Phone Power is as fine an example of pleasingly idiosyncratic alternative rock as you’ll hear in 2016. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, as TMBG established themselves as a singularly unique proposition years ago. The Two Johns must be comfortable knowing that they can pretty much do what they want, when they want and their fans will continue to adore them, hell they even unashamedly channel The Beach Boys on “Shape Shifter”.
Quite where They Might Be Giants go from here is anyone’s guess, as, the odd standalone show aside, they are certainly planning some sort of hiatus from performance. After such a sustained period of prolific creativity, no one could deny that they deserve a bit of time off to put their feet up and recharge their batteries.
Phone Power is out now, and further details can be found at: https://tmbg.com/phonepower