At first I planned to emulate Jonathan’s Top 10 Beatles’ albums countdown. Instead I’ve opted for a chronological consideration of the major releases of the world’s finest band, They Might Be Giants. Sticking to the studio albums leaves a lot out, especially recently; maybe someday I’ll cover the live stuff, the children’s music, and other miscellany. By doing this in a single entry I’ve committed the sin of the uncomfortable middle, length-wise: each album gets far less attention than it deserves, but the whole is intolerably long. My apologies in advance.
How entrenched is the music of They Might Be Giants in my mind? Consider this scene: It’s December 2, and my daughter Ella is one day old. We’re in the hospital. Her mother is napping, and I’m holding her on my lap. I have no idea what I ought to be doing just now, but a song seems in order, so I try to think of something I can actually sing, where I won’t forget the tune or the lyrics.
The only songs that come to mind are by They Might Be Giants.
So I launch into a wobbly rendition of Women and Men (which is kind of appropriate, if you think about it), and carry on from there.
They Might Be Giants (1986)
I’d love to say that I was onto TMBG from the beginning. But when their debut album was released, I was living in West Africa and was too young and/or unhip to be into (or even aware of) alternative music of any kind. When Don’t Let Start was creating buzz on MTV, I was ecstatic to be getting my hands on Cyndi Lauper’s second album six months after it had been released in the States. So like far too many people, I had to work backwards to get to their debut.
It’s difficult to think of the first two albums separately. They have that old-school TMBG sound—guitar, accordion, drum machine—in its purest form, song after song. These days, it’s easier to buy them albums together, with B-sides, in the compilation Then: The Early Years. But for me they’ll always be separate.
Don’t Let’s Start—The quintessential TMBG song, in many ways. The first time you hear it, you think: “What a catchy little song. So quirky, so clever, so peppy. I do believe I shall dance.” The second time, you pay attention to the lyrics, and realize “My goodness! This may be the most morbid song I’ve ever heard. ‘No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful’? ‘I don’t want to live in this world anymore’? And yet, I still feel like dancing.” Three or four listens in, you find yourself touting the old “TMBG is actually a very depressing band” line, and maybe three or four dozen times after that, you’ve come out the other side and realize that somewhere under the surface morbidity, in ineffable synthesis with the music, there’s a subtext full of . . . groovy hope.
Rabid Child—This is just your typical song about a strangely-afflicted child whose only connection to the outside world is CB radio. This album, more than any other (I’ll hazard to say) is full of the truly “out there” tunes that lack any sort of traditional pop song architecture and are full of unexpected, occasionally dissonant whistles, toots, and bells. “Rabid Child” is a good example. I’ve always thought it would be a cool idea to make a mix tape (er, mix CD) comprised of songs about eccentric, isolated children. This one and R.E.M.’s “The Wrong Child” would be obvious fits, but I haven’t been able to come up with more examples than that.
She’s an Angel—This is, hands down, my favorite TMBG song ever. I have a strong suspicion that it’s one of the Johns’ favorites as well: they’ve managed to fit it in to every live show I’ve ever seen, often in one of those first-or-second-encore, culmination-of-everything slots. It all comes down to the plaintive twang just before the chorus:
Why, why did they send her?
Over anyone else
How should I react? These
Things happen to other people
They don’t happen at all, in fact
Is it a song about a guy who has fallen in love with a mortal woman whom he thinks is angelic, or is it a song about a guy who has fallen in love with an actual supernatural being? As is the case with many of their songs, this question only serves as a door to a hallway I’ve yet to reach the end of.
Ah, glorious Lincoln. The apotheosis of the early years. I’m not sure yet where I’ll put it in the rankings—I’ll do those last—but it’ll definitely be in the top three. To say that it’s the Giants album with the bleakest lyrics is missing the point; what they really are is the cleverest lyrics in their oeuvre, and that’s saying a lot.
Make a hole with a gun perpendicular
To the name of this town in a desk-top globe
Exit wound in a foreign nation
Showing the home of the one this was written for
My apartment looks upside down from there
Water spirals the wrong way out the sink
And her voice is a backwards record
It’s like a whirlpool and it never ends (Ana Ng)
Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders
What the part that isn’t thinking isn’t thinking of
Should you worry when the skullhead is in front of you
Or is it worse because it’s always waiting where your eyes don’t go? (Where Your Eyes Don’t Go)
Bonus points to anyone who knows where the Wallace Stevens reference is in this album. Musically, Lincoln has a tad more of a pop sensibility than the debut, though you still get whacked-out tracks like Cage and Aquarium.
Ana Ng—I was lying when I said that “Don’t Let’s Start” was the quintessential TMBG song. This one is. It’s OK to point newbies to DLS to get a layman’s understanding of the band, but those in the know know that this one has it all.
Purple Toupee—A capsule history of the Sixties gets put in a text blender, and this is what comes out. What the music has to do with that era, I don’t know, but it sure is cool.
Kiss Me, Son of God—As it happens, the first copy of Lincoln I ever got my hands on was a tape copy that Ed borrowed from his suitemates in college. They were a pair of religious-right types, very straight-laced and stuck up. Their tape didn’t include this song—they thought it naughty and possibly blasphemous, so they didn’t copy it over. This only makes sense if you have no sense of irony whatsoever.
Ah, Flood. My very first exposure to TMBG was hearing Birdhouse In Your Soul on a mix tape Jonathan made freshman year. It was one of those “I have to listen to everything this band has ever done” moments. Some people need a few listens for Flood to grow on them. I wasn’t one of those people. The first time I sat down to listen to it start to finish, I started over and listened to it again. Five times. At least.
Flood was TMBG’s first major label album, with Elektra. They have a whole honeymoon-followed-by-bitter-divorce tale with the label that’ll be familiar to anyone who has watched a couple random episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music. The particulars in this case are described in the incredible documentary Gigantic, though there are far better reasons than that to watch it.
There exist people who feel that with Flood, TMBG lost their essence—traded away their avant-garde, stick-pounding glory for the big bucks of mainstream success. You don’t hear from those people much any more, partly because most folks started listening to the band with Flood, and partly because they’re wrong. This album compromises nothing. It is, without a doubt, the “if you only ever listen to one They Might Be Giants album” album. If it lacks the lyrical punch of its predecessor, it compensates with the soaring power of its best songs, and the fact that there’s not a weak track in the bunch. Flood is also the album where the Johns show off their flexibility by dipping into a different musical style with almost every song. You still have to see them live to really appreciate the fact that they are musical geniuses and not just the geekboys of rock, but if you listen closely to Flood you can start to see it. Er, hear it.
Birdhouse in Your Soul—Even if you think you haven’t heard any TMBG, this is the song you’ve probably heard before. And if you listened to it and didn’t understand what the big deal was, you might as well stop reading now. Go read something else. There’s no help for you. This song is perfect.
Your Racist Friend—This song is as close to gettin’ political as TMBG ever gets. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but Ed’s aforementioned suitemates from college had some cartoon or something on their bulletin board that struck us as not just ill-considered, but downright racist. So for a while Ed was saying that he was going to put this song on auto-repeat, crank the volume way up, and then leave and lock the doors behind him. I don’t recall if he ever did it.
Particle Man—All TMBG fans remember where they were when they had their first discussion about the ontological nature of Particle Man and Triangle Man. When you get right down to it, that’s Giants philosophy lite, though—a song like Dead is far more challenging. Still, it makes a great tune to sing along with if all you have on hand is an accordion, and you’re drunk.
Road Movie to Berlin—This song contains one of the best TMBG lines of all time:
We were once so close to heaven
Peter came out and gave us medals
Declaring us the nicest
Of the damned
A couple years ago, playing in DC, TMBG opened for themselves as the cover band Sapphire Bullets. They played all the songs in Flood, in order, and when they got to the end of “Road Movie” they spun it out into a ten minute long transcendent jam. It was glorious.
Apollo 18 (1992)
I’m torn here. The callous critic in me knows that this album and the next don’t live up to the ones preceding. Some might even call it a slump. But Apollo 18 was the first album to be released after I had discovered the band, and so I devoured it with a ravenous appetite. I still have a hard time pinning down just why it’s not as good; it’s a subset of the difficulty I have in ranking the albums in the first place.
The coolest thing about Apollo 18 is certainly the Fingertips. They are twenty-one song snippets, each 5-10 seconds long, that appear as individual tracks at the end of the album. The idea (according to the liner notes) is to play the CD on random so that the snippets are sprinkled among the regular songs. All the Fingertips are catchy. Some you wish they had made into full songs. And some (‘darkened corridors,’ anyone?) rank high among TMBG songs all by themselves.
The Statue Got Me High—The high point of the album, lyrically speaking. What it’s about I’m still not sure, but equally strong arguments can be made that the song refers to Moliere’s Don Juan or the origin of Dr. Fate. Musically, the song gets at why the whole album is a step below its predecessors—it’s quirky, it’s peppy, but it lacks of the elegance of an “Ana Ng” or a “Birdhouse.”
Spider—This is the last anecdote from college, I promise. For a semester or so, Phil Chase and I had a radio show on WCAL, Calvin College’s radio station. And for a while in there, Ed would come by and we’d put on a little improvised radio drama all about the arachnoid superhero implied by this song. Ed even made a drawing for t-shirts that we never got around to making. I don’t know if it was any good, or if anybody was even listening, but we had a blast.
Turn Around—Each TMBG album has a song about dancing and death.
We were waving our arms out the window
Of a fast moving passenger train
Acting in an irresponsible fashion
Until the engineer whose back had been turned
And who we thought would find us highly amusing
Quickly swiveled his head around
And his face which was a paper-white mask of evil
Sang us this song
It’s that “paper-white mask of evil” that makes the verse, don’t you agree?
John Henry (1994)
With this album, They Might Be Giants underwent a sea change, apparent both in their live shows and in their studio releases. They got a band. Up until now, they had been a duo, with their sound coming from the studio tinkering of John & John. Starting with John Henry they actually added some backing musicians to their lineup. Predictably, the people who hadn’t cried “Sellout!” with Flood did so now. And they were still wrong—TMBG was never in it for the money, and have long-since abandoned big-label deals altogether. But admittedly, this is a transitional work by a band still adjusting to things like a horn section and an actual, living drummer. The Johns hit a little bit of a songwriting slump here, too, with duds and filler like Stomp Box and Thermostat.
Destination Moon—For some reason I always get this song and “No One Knows My Plan” mixed up, like maybe they both belong in the same musical. If so, then the Brain has been transferred to the hospital and is plotting an escape by rocket. Or something.
Factory Showroom (1996)
Here we have TMBG’s fuller sound, fully realized. The songs are as mainstream as the band has ever gotten, then or since, but they remain unmistakably Giantish, and the lyrics have lost none of their edge. The horns are left behind in favor of a five-guys-in-a-band sound—not garage-y, mind you, but closer to the garage end of the spectrum. The extra three guys that recorded this album with the Johns aren’t the ones that helped the full-band sound reach its apex, though. That honor belongs to the Dans: Dan Hickey on drums, Dan Miller on guitar, Dan Weinkauf on bass. Those are the guys you’ll see up on stage alongside Flansburgh and Linnell these days, and (in no small part because of them) these are the best days in the band’s history to see them up on stage.
Till My Head Falls Off—My favorite cutting-up-the-dance-floor TMBG song. Their lyrical obsession with death is channeled here into the story of an old man who refuses to give in:
Hitting every pocket on my shirt, pants and overcoat
And I’m hitting them again but I don’t know where I put my notes
Clearing my throat, and gripping the lectern I smile and face my audience
Clearing his throat and smiling with his hands on the bathroom sink
And when I lean my head against the frosted shower stall
I see stuff through the glass that I don’t recognize at all
And I’m not done
And I won’t be till my head falls off
Though it may not be a long way off
When I’m ninety I plan to play this song really really loud and freak out my grandchildren.
New York City—One of the few songs not written by either of the Johns that they play regularly. It’s a sweet paean to their hometown. Gigantic has a scene of them singing it at a Tower Records on September 10, 2001. The significance of the date is left unspoken. I suspect they’ve played it at every show since then.
James K. Polk—This song did a lot to encourage the whole “They’re the band with the wacky songs!” meme. “See! They do this crazy song about an obscure American president! How . . . wacky!” In particular I remember a time when Ray Suarez was interviewing them on Talk of the Nation: he asked why they decided to write ‘educational’ songs. “You just don’t get it, do you?” I yelled at the radio. “It’s not because it’s educational. It’s . . . well . . . I can’t really articulate why they do it, but if you get it you get it. Get it? Oh, never mind . . .”
Bonus points if you were aware that this song first appeared as a B-side on the “Istanbul Not Constantinople” single, six years earlier.
I Can Hear You—I have been accused by friends of reading way too much into this song. It’s gimmicky in that it was recorded at the Edison Laboratories on Thomas Alva’s 1898 wax cylinder phonograph.
I can hear you
Just barely hear you
I can just barely hear you
This is a warning
Step away from the car
This car is protected by Viper
Guess where I am
I’m calling from the plane
I’ll call you when I get there
You won’t hear a buzz
But I’m buzzing you in
I’m buzzing you in
What’s your order?
I can super-size that
Please bring your car around
I can hear you
Just barely hear you
I can just barely hear you
Obviously, the verses describe a series of situations where the audio is fuzzy and hard-to-understand, just like the song itself. Where I go off the deep end is in seeing a subtext about the fundamental difficulty (and perhaps futility) of human communication through all the noise and static of life. And yet we try. It’s the fourth verse that gets me: “But I’m buzzing you in / I’m buzzing you in.” It may be hard to hear each other, but it is still in us to reach out and open the door . . . I get all weepy just thinking about it. It’s true that the text by itself doesn’t support my interpretation—there’s something in the tone of John’s voice that completes the meaning.
Mink Car (2001)
There’s a big chunk of time between Factory Showroom and this album, during which the band went in a lot of different directions. They dropped Elektra and went back to recording independently. They embraced the Internet music revolution by becoming one of the first bands (possibly the first band) to release an online-only mp3 album. They collaborated with McSweeney’s. They did music work for a number of TV shows—most people recognize their theme song for Malcolm in the Middle; fewer folks realize that the catchy theme for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is also their handiwork. They did a lot of work on an album of children’s songs, No!; it wasn’t actually released until after Mink Car, though. And they kept up an impressive touring schedule, with the aforementioned Dans backing up the indefatigable Johns.
Mink Car’s release date was September 11, 2001. I picked it up two days later at the Borders in Pentagon City, a quarter-mile from the smoldering Pentagon itself. The two stayed connected in my mind for a while: “The world is turned upside-down, but at least TMBG has another album out.” With time and distance, it’s clear that this is by no means their best work. Even though the Dans were part of the recording, it feels much more like a duo album than a full band effort. It most closely resembles Flood, especially because of the wide variety of musical styles it manages to bring in, but though most of the songs are good, none are truly great. A number of the tracks are remixes of things recorded earlier for other purposes. It pains me to say it, but I think the boys mailed this one in.
Hopeless Bleak Despair—Appropriately enough given the title, this is the most depressing TMBG song ever. All the stuff I said earlier about coming out the other side and finding a message of hope doesn’t apply here. The song is just plain depressing. There’s a kind of purity to that.
Older—This is one of those remixes. It originally appeared on Long Tall Weekend, the mp3 album. It’s an incredibly simple song, and one that perfectly distills the band’s sense of humor and obsession with mortality. You have to hear the relentless rhythm to get the full effect:
You’re older that you’ve ever been
and now you’re even older
and now you’re even older
and now you’re even older
You’re older that you’ve ever been
and now you’re even older
and now you’re older still
time – is marching on
and time – is still marching on
It ain’t easy, but running through the albums has helped me see clearly enough to put them in order of merit. Here they are, best to worst:
3. Factory Showroom
4. They Might Be Giants
5. Apollo 18
6. John Henry
7. Mink Car
The only real toss-up was between Apollo 18 and the self-entitled album, which are interchangeable in slots 4 & 5 as far as I’m concerned. The rest fell into place rather easily.
They have a new label, and a new EP coming out April 6. This is good news, because it means a new album won’t be too far behind. You can bet I’ll review it here when that time comes.