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They Might Be Giants

Elektra

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I used to be reluctant to admit it—I felt like a traitor—but now it can be told: Nerdcore heroes They Might Be Giants have been in decline since the turn of the decade. What with umpteen-track recordings, endless accolades for cleverness, the Dial-a-Song line, the “Hello” program for recording other artists, and guitarist John Flansburgh’s video directing, the two ultraprolific would-be Giants must surely have come to feel like hacks—albeit self-satisfied hacks. In an effort to revitalize their drum-machine gimmickry, they recruited an actual backup band for John Henry. But unlike the album’s namesake, the musicians aren’t playing with enough heart to blow a gasket—there’s not a “(She Was a) Hotel Detective” in the lot. Cuts like the lethargic-turned-bouncy “Sleeping in the Flowers” and the mellow “Extra Savoir-Faire” possess the show-tune catchiness that once served the Giants so well. Yet “Subliminal” (whose backward-masking recalls the band’s 1986 vinyl debut) and “Why Must I Be Sad” (which falls back on nearly the same refrain as 1988’s “Mr. Me”) are only self-conscious throwbacks to finer days, when the singers’ voices communicated frustration and wistfulness, not just deeper-than-thou irony.