They Might Be Giants

John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants figured out long ago that the doors of perception are revolving. Not that they espouse the use of illicit substances; their music is itself a mind-bender.

"Sleeping is a gateway drug," declares "Wearing a Raincoat," "to being awake again." It's typical of the sly lyrical twists on the duo's latest release, "The Spine." The songs fold back on themselves, hint at palindromes, and otherwise play with the listener, but not out of self-indulgence: They keep you listening, fully awake, because you don't know what will happen next.

"The Spine" is the two Johns' 10th full-length album -- in addition to singles, EPs and even songs distributed as answering-machine messages -- and it's steeped in self-analysis. "I can't hide from my mind though I try," goes one lyric, and it's a full-blown hostage situation: "I know I'm in there. . . . Don't make me come in and get me." Fortunately, self-absorbed doesn't mean obscure. "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" may boast distorted vocals and a warped parody of the cliched sax solo, but it's a magnificently compact playlet about irrational fear: The so-called villain is "waving at me but he looks kind of mad."

Even when the Giants skirt the boundaries of nerdly superiority, as on the name-dropping "Au Contraire," they save themselves with perky instrumental arrangements and beguiling melodies. You can't always tell when these guys are serious -- "Thunderbird" might have something to say about the mind of an alcoholic, for example, or it might just be an attempt to evoke "Imperial Bedroom"-era Elvis Costello. It's up to the listener to choose his own adventure. The only way to improve "The Spine"? Release it on Mobius strip.

-- Pamela Murray Winters


The Fiery Furnaces

The Fiery Furnaces' debut album, "Gallowsbird's Bark," combined elements of blues, Brit-pop, rock, folk, garage, glam, psychedelia and synth-pop, wowed critics and still managed to sound staid -- compared to their follow-up, anyway.

"Blueberry Boat," the incredibly ambitious sophomore effort for the Brooklyn-based band, rambles and weaves through more than 75 alternately dark and dense, then whimsical, minutes.

Singer Eleanor Friedberger and her multi-instrumentalist older brother Matthew form the core of the band.

On "Blueberry," they specialize in epic, lengthy tracks that recall the early rock operas of the Who. Each smoothly -- but not too smoothly -- transitions between singers (Matthew's deadpan delivery complements Eleanor's theatrical approach), tempos and instruments, often wrapping three or four mini-songs into each title.

The album opens with "Quay Cur." Eleanor's childlike falsetto dramatically unfolds the story of a little girl's lost locket, over the sounds of a skipping electro record juxtaposed with the tinkling of piano keys, urgent guitars and pretty strums, keyboard melodies that sound like helium escaping from pinched balloons, and ominous piano-pounding.

When Eleanor heads haphazardly around town looking for her pet on "I Lost My Dog," Matthew's music is just as scattered as her travels: pipe organs when she inquires at the church, strange electronic squibbles at the market.

But by the time the song ends on the repeated chant "My dog was lost / But now he's found," it has come back around to a blues stomper.

This is much of the joy of "Blueberry": listening to two young talents do rock-and-roll such a service by pushing so manically at its boundaries.

-- Bill Werde