In December of 2014, the genre-hopping duo They Might Be Giants relaunched their Dial-A-Song service in order to release a new song every Tuesday for one year. Initially conceived as a lo-fi, innovative way to generate interest in their music, Dial-A-Song has its origins in 1985, originally consisting of a Brooklyn, NY telephone number and an answering machine. This time around, in order to accommodate their much larger fan base, the Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) utilized a toll-free version of the original number as well as a website. The collected songs were released on three different albums as they accumulated. The first two records, Glean and Why?, were released in April and November of last year. The third, Phone Power, completes the trilogy of Dial-A-Song material and is the band’s first full-length release of 2016.
Phone Power opens characteristically with “Apophenia”, a gleefully quirky ode to the human tendency of seeking meaning in random patterns. That TMBG would choose a bit of intellectual esoterica to kick off their nineteenth studio album is a testament to the group’s unending dedication to their specific brand of geeky humor. The songs that follow immediately after deliver similarly fashioned, upbeat, thoughtful pop filled with clever lyrics that often contrast the joyous music they’re paired with. The common denominator throughout is that the vocals are always delivered in the Johns’ eerily similar, slightly nasally, matter-of-fact way, so that even though the verse is often ridiculous and contradictory, you can’t help but smile at its nerdy absurdity.
“ECNALUBMA” (try it backwards) introduces the second third of Phone Power with triumphant brass and an occasional Clyde Stubblefield-esque breakdown. “Daylight”, a brief psychedelic detour, acts as a bridge to the record’s standout centerpiece, “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin”. Built on thick, bubbling analogue synth hooks and a barrel full of celebrity references, including: Yoda, Lou Ferrigno, Skeletor, and Patty Hearst, “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin” wouldn’t sound a bit out of place on an album by the tech-savvy, pop culture addict, Momus. The middle set is concluded with the mildly funky “I’ll Be Haunting You” which appropriately foreshadows the album’s largely soulful final batch.
Amidst record scratches and a sly bass line, the track “Got Getting Up So Down” comically toys with hip hop braggadocio by repeatedly reminding the listener, “I got getting up so down, I can do it in my sleep.” The highlight of Phone Power’s homestretch, however, arrives with an unironic cover of Destiny’s Child’s 1999 hit, “Bills, Bills, Bills”. TMBG shrewdly give the R&B track a second life, highlighting the chart-topping song’s adaptability by performing it as if they were “Hash Pipe”-era Weezer. The album ends with the country ditty “I Wasn’t Listening”, and with self-referential lines like, “I didn’t know why they had to crow about Dial-A-Song” it serves as a perfect closing credits finale for the entire project.
After over thirty years of carving out their own eccentric niche in the world of alternative rock, the music of They Might Be Giants has deservedly come to be recognized as a unique and significant genre landmark, one that’s continuously being discovered and embraced. Veteran fans will find a lot to love here, and while Phone Power may not be recommended as one of the group’s entry point albums initially, it definitely includes enough of They Might Be Giants’ trademark humor and skillful songwriting to make new listeners want to explore more of this one-of-a-kind band’s eclectic discography.