Being a latter-day TMBG fan is a frustrating experience. I know they are still capable of writing and releasing great songs, but the last decade has been so full of lacklustre-to-inconsistent albums it makes me almost dread forthcoming records. Some of their better work in this period has appeared in podcasts and on their children's albums, or on contemporaneous albums like 'Cast Your Pod to the Wind' where they could really break loose and raise their freak flag. So it was with fairly low expectations that I listened to 'Nanobots'.
It feels like around the time of 'Mink Car', when they were also working on 'No!', the guys' foray into kid's music forced them to make a considered distinction between the songs they considered childish or to be a 'novelty' and the more serious songs they would feature on albums. This heralded a new age of uninspired, uninteresting albums that lacked the imagination, instrumentation, weird arrangements and subject matter of their best, early work. 'Nanobots' isn't exactly a return to these days, but it does shake off some of the song writing and production chains of recent albums.
Highlights include the super- catchy rocker 'You're On Fire,' which features an awesome harmonica break towards the end; the satisfyingly creepy surf-rock pastiche 'Call You Mom,' the electro-hip-hop of 'The Darlings of Lumberland,' which is quite unlike anything else in the TMBG canon; and the jagged power-pop of 'Circular Karate Chop,' which could almost fit with their earlier material, sounding something like a cross between 'Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head' and 'Twisting'. Some people have picked up on the slew of short songs, likening the vibe to 'Fingertips' from 'Apollo 18'. I personally didn't get the sense that they were recycling this concept; many of the short songs are really enjoyable and find their place as part of the album as a whole. The ones that don't - well, they don't outstay their welcome.
Unfortunately, the album sags around the middle with too many insignificant songs that are merely OK. It's also blighted by lyrics that think they're cleverer than they are, and can come off a little cringeworthy. A line like "amputate the thought that says you shouldn't ever amputate a thought" from '9 Secret Steps' is cute, not clever and is almost formulaic at this stage of their career.
There are too many songs that don't quite connect to make this a 5-star album but fair-weather fans should take notice that this is a really good album; really interesting, enjoyable, jam-packed with great melodies and musical ideas and a healthy dose of old-school TMBG instrumentation and weirdness. Get it!