Integrating humor into rock is a tricky business: Direct jokiness fades after a quick laugh, while those trying to incorporate subtle smarts may just come across as smartasses. They Might Be Giants, guilty of both crimes at times, has found serious longevity with an effortless–sometimes too effortless–balancing act that attaches non-traditional, marginally wacky wordiness to a mixture of the musically expected (guitars, drums) and the less-so (baritone sax, accordion). In spite of that, core members John Flansburgh and John Linnell clearly have populist aims, and couch their sideways observations in undeniably catchy packages.
Unfortunately, what seemed novel 15 years ago has sagged a bit with age. Recent They Might Be Giants albums have become more predictable, which is a dangerous flaw in music whose foundation rests on laughter and/or delight born of surprise. The group's latest record, The Spine, suffers further from increasing polish; as the years have passed, the two Johns have rubbed away many of the idiosyncrasies that drew bigger numbers to terrific bomb-pops like "Ana Ng" and "Birdhouse In Your Soul" years ago.
A few bright spots dot The Spine with the spirit of TMBG's best moments, and they're conveniently front-loaded: "Experimental Film" goofs on the avant-garde with a bounce and life that recalls the band's early-'90s hits, "Memo To Human Resources" attaches a rare and welcome bit of seriousness to the set, and the mini-interludes "Spine" and "Spines" take a Ween-ish turn. But for most of The Spine, They Might Be Giants hammers its quirks into predictable shapes, mistaking catchy for listenable ("Prevenge"), layering on effects to bolster the dull ("Bastard Wants To Hit Me"), and generally delivering what's expected. A line from the half-fun polka entry "Stalk Of Wheat" puts a finger on The Spine's problem: "I was out of ideas / Like I is, like I is."