I used one of my Christmas gift cards to buy They Got Lost, a collection of previously released "hard to find" tracks from They Might Be Giants. I haven't listened to the whole thing, but I'm already disappointed.
TMBG has been my favorite band for fifteen years. I bought Flood after watching that one Tiny Toons episode and I've never looked back. (As long ago as that was, I'm not as legit as certain people I could name, who have been devotees of the Johns since the days of Nick Rocks.) But I'm now coming to terms with what I've been willfully ignoring for the past six years: They Might Be Giants hain't what they used to be. And here are some reasons why.
1. To borrow the tagline from Something Awful, the Internet has made TMBG stupid. 1999's digital-only release of Long Tall Weekend was a bold move in the midst of Metallica's attack on Napster and the rest of Technology. But ever since then, the Giants have been producing an endless stream of crappy songs from their website. If I get one more e-mail inviting me to download a bunch of poorly recorded, uninteresting live songs about the Johns' favorite foods, I'm hitting the Spam button.
2. The Giants have become extremely weird soundtrack whores. They recorded the catchy but unremarkable Daily Show theme, the grating Malcom in the Middle theme, Dr. Evil's theme for Austin Powers, and, in what is perhaps the greatest "What the fuck?" moment in TMBG history, the entire soundtrack for Disney's straight-to-video Peter Pan sequel. It's cool when Mark Mothersbaugh does this kind of stuff, because Devo isn't around anymore.
3. They're stretching themselves way too thin in trying to cozy up to America's geek-intelligentsia. The collaborations with Homestar Runner (puppet jams aside), NPR, and McSween(e)y/ie[']s.net.com are all well and good, but it's enough already. Nobody's impressed anymore.
4. Flood was an ambitious album full of quality tracks that melded together in a coherent meditation on the many ways in which mankind is powerless. That was fifteen years ago and they haven't released anything in the ballpark since.
5. The deluge of crappy mp3s and random media involvements have led the Giants to release too many collections of "rarities" to keep track of. Many of these collections are good for three or four decent tracks, along with stupid crap like radio promos and concert intros.
6. Their obsession with picking scraps up off the floor and putting them on CDs has led to an annoying habit -- beginning with 1997's Factory Showroom -- of including previously released tracks on new-release studio albums. There's a difference between things like demos, promos, and the underproduced crap from the website and thoughtful, well-made studio tracks. That distinction is being blurred, with the result that the quality of their studio albums is suffering.
7. Flansburgh's unending quest for self-glorifying media exposure has left him derelict in his duty of reining in Linnell's dadaism. As a result, Linnell's most vile nihilistic tendencies have made it into wide release under the TMBG banner. "Violin" is one of the stupidest things ever recorded. "Raincoat" is an abomination. "All Alone" made me stop listening to They Got Lost. Linnell is like the Andy Kaufman of music, intentionally pissing off his audience for his own amusement. He's also like Paul McCartnery -- when he's good, he's great, but when he's bad, he's "The Doggone Girl is Mine."
8. Related to Number 7, Linnell is also buying into the Eddie Murphy philosophy of "making crap that adults will hate but my kids will like." He somehow blackmailed Flansburgh into recording an entire children's album (NO!). There's a way to make something entertaining for children and adults at the same time (just look at Pixar), and NO! didn't do it. Although there are a handful of decent cuts, a lot of them -- mostly the Linnell tracks -- are obnoxious, condescending, and pointless.
9. Their ham-handed attempts at broader exposure while simultaneously paying lipservice to nurturing their cult fan base creates the impression that they're taking the die-hards for granted (by doing things like releasing a two-disc set consisting of three complete previously released CDs along with about eighteen previously unavailable bonus tracks, and only releasing the bonus tracks on their own after they sold enough two-disc sets to "new" fans). That's never a good sign.
10. Three of my favorite TMBG tracks are on the latest album (The Spine). Between the three of them, they encapsulate everything I like about the TMBG sound. "Experimental Film" is up-beat and satirical, "Memo to Human Resources" is dark and sarcastic, and "Museum of Idiots" is Linnell at his finest, full of conflicted and fatalistic feelings about a dysfunctional relationship. These tracks remind me that TMBG still has the capacity for greatness that they've always had, but their increasing lack of focus (and the fact that I skip past almost everything else on The Spine) makes me pessimistic about future releases.
I'm not willing to write them off yet, but if the next album is another Spine I may have to change my favorite band from "They Might Be Giants" to "Early They Might Be Giants."