They Might Be Giants

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They Might Be Giants cover How do I begin to describe They Might Be Giants? They're like the Spike Jones of rock & roll. They're like showtunes on acid. They're pop music at its most serious and most silly. Or perhaps I should leave it to their own self-description as the "twin quasars of rock".

They Might Be Giants are two guys named John Linnell and John Flansburgh. They write so many songs that a record company couldn't possibly keep up with them, so they have a phone in line where you can hear the song of the day (I think it's still there, the number is 718-387-6962). In the early days, it was just the two of them and a tape recorder. They played mostly accordian and guitar in concert, and had all the percussion, bass, samples, and other stuff pre-recorded on a tape which they played along with in their shows. More recently I hear they've had a drummer with them in concert, but I haven't seen that arrangement.

Their self-titled debut album crashed into the rock scene in 1986, and the rock scene was never the same. The first song I heard by them was Don't Let's Start, which was their first big hit, and which KROQ played liberally at the time. The rythmic urgency of this song grabs you and holds you until the song is over. The lyrics turn a breakup song into a world catastrophe.

D, world destruction
Over and overture
N, do I need
Apostrophe T, need this torture?

When I first bought the album, I would play the first side over and over, mostly to hear Don't Let's Start. A lesser album, I might have saved time and just played the one track over and over like a junkie, but there were plenty of other gems on the side to warrant playing it. For example, the opening track, Everything Right is Wrong Again. It establishes their musical style of quirky rock and eclectic lyrics, including this heinous pun:

Everything that's right is wrong again
You're a weasel overcome with dinge
Weasel overcome but not before the damage done
The healing doesn't stop the feeling

As if they needed to repeat that heinous a pun (don't get me wrong, I like bad puns. In fact I'm Attila the pun). Another song I glommed onto right from the start is the brief Toddler Hiway:

In the mornin' sun `round seven o'clock
The parking lot fills around Toys-R-Us
And my little girl, she will get away
Ride her bike down Toddler Hiway
Take your Close `n' Play
Toddler Hiway

It's short, sweet, and to the point, with just a hint of the surreal. The last song on the first side, Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes, leans all the way over the surreal fence.

All the people are so happy now their heads are caving in
I'm glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin

Though less directed than most of the songs, it's got a catchy melody, and you feel John's singin' it with a purpose, whatever that may be.

The first three songs of the second side are all story songs. It starts off with the funky Hotel Detective, the story of a woman who is a hotel detective (imagine that). Second up is She's An Angel, the story of a man who's in love with an angel. Taking the metaphor literally gives a light but slightly surreal (there's that word again) twist to the song:

Gonna ask for my admission
Gonna speak to the man in charge
The secretary says he's on another line
Can I hold for a long long time?
I found out she's an angel
I don't think she knows I know
I'm worried that something might happen to me
If anyone ever finds out

Next up is Youth Culture Killed My Dog. It has a James Bond guitar feel, and the plot concerns how new trends in music killed the protagonist's pet.

Bacharach and David used to write his favorite songs
Never would he worry, he'd just run and fetch the ball
But the hip hop and the white funk just blew away my puppy's mind

In case you haven't figured it out by now, Jarry and Ionesco had nothing on Linnel and Flansburgh.

I recently discovered the source of the "Daddy'll sing bass" line from Boat of Car. It's from an old song by Johnny Cash, and when I heard it I immediately had to took off the Cash CD and put on TMBG to listen to the song.

The closing song of the album (and the CD for that matter) is one of my all time favorites by TMBG, and it's autobiographical in nature. It's called Rhythm Section Want Ad

Do you sing like Olive Oyl on purpose (NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO)
You guys must be into the Eurythmics (NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO)
For everyone with dollar signs in his eyes
There must be hundreds that look at you as if you're some kind of
Rhythm section want ad
No others need apply to the rhythm section want ad
And here's the reason why

The reason why, of course, is their extensive use of drum machines and MIDI to sequence other instruments to complement the stuff that they're playing. Half the stuff they have sequenced up was so complex that it couldn't be played by most drummers, and until they made it big, they probably couldn't afford the kind of drummer who could play that well.

As I mentioned, in their early days, they used a four-track recorder to record the rhythm tracks to accompany them in concert, but by the time this album came out, they were using an Alesis HR-16 (the same drum machine used in the early days of the Liberal Materialists!). The HR-16 doesn't sound as good as real drums, but it sounds pretty good, and you don't have to pay it 1/3 of the amount you get paid for the gig. :-)

Rhythm Section Want Ad also contains my favorite TMBG bad pun:

There's a place for those who love their poetry
It's right across from the sign that says "Pros only"

I've skipped half of the songs in my reviews here to cover only my favorites, but this collection is as diverse in style as any album you'll ever hear. There's a pervasive feel of new wave rock to the album, but there are smatterings of country, commercials, funk, soul, blues, polka, and kitchen sink as well. You'll hum along, you'll sing along, you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll say, "huh?"

Their second album, Lincoln, was similarly diverse in style, so in a truly weird way, you could accuse them of sticking to a formula (or anti-formula) for their sophomore effort. If they had never released the first album, then Lincoln would be taking its place here on my Desert Island 10.

If you're interested, you can listen to samples of some of the songs here. If you really like it, you can even buy it there. Or better yet, buy Then: The Early Years, which includes the first album, Lincoln, and most of their early songs from eps and singles.

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