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When Nanobots arrived in March, it marked the 16th album that the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has released as They Might Be Giants over their 30-year partnership.
Nanobots adds to an impressive and deep discography that dates back to the duo’s 1986 self-titled debut. Early on, They Might Be Giants was sometimes labeled a novelty act for their witty (and brainy) lyrics and catchy, sometimes quirky pop songs. Still, the group got signed to major label Elektra Records (from 1989-1996) and even had a top five modern rock hit with “Birdhouse in Your Soul” from the 1990 album Flood. But their greatest success has come with an entry into children’s music. The first such release, No!, arrived in 2002 and has been followed by Here Come the ABCs (2005), Here Come the 123s (2008) and Here Comes Science (2009). But like Nanobots, the group’s previous release, 2011’s Join Us, was an album for “adults.”
“Oh, we’re always trying to figure out how to stretch out,” Flansburgh says. “There’s nothing more interesting to us than finding a new kind of song to work on.” And Flansburgh says he and Linnell succeeded in discovering some new musical territory on Nanobots.
“I think ‘Sometimes a Lonely Way’ for me was … interesting to write something that was kind of that down,” Flansburgh says, mentioning a pretty piano-based ballad from the new album. “It wasn’t intentional. I was trying to figure out how to do something that was just simple, and I think the combination of a really unadorned arrangement and a very direct kind of sentiment kind of added up to something that seemed much more intense than I think I was even intending.”
Another song that stands out to Flansburgh is “The Darlings of Lumberland,” which was a collaboration with veteran saxophone player Stan Harrison (perhaps most famous for playing sax on the David Bowie hit, “Let’s Dance”).
“I think there’s something that’s actually very breezy about the way the horn chart works on that song, even though there’s a lot of instruments,” Flansburgh says. “There might be 10 horns at a time happening on the song, but it feels very sparky. It doesn’t seem bogged down, and it doesn’t seem over-orchestrated. It’s very alive.”
What’s also different about Nanobots is the overall feel of the album, Flansburgh says. The CD has 25 songs, a half-dozen of which are less than 30 seconds long, and the album flows from start to finish as a single piece. Sequencing the songs, Flansburgh says, was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project.
“We didn’t know how to put it together at first,” he says. “We started making the sort of micro-songs. We started constructing those songs, and they’re all really fun in and of themselves, and we didn’t know how we should string it together. We didn’t want it to seem like just ‘Fingertips Part Two.’ [The original “Fingertips” is a collection of 21 short songs arranged together on the 1992 album Apollo 18.] And we didn’t want it to seem like a medley. So some of them are sequenced to stand apart and some of them are chained together. And it kind of ebbs and flows. But I think the cumulative effect is pretty singular, and I think the whole album stands up as an experience.”
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