Playlist: They Might Be Giants – The Rare Ones

TheyMightBeGiants

Inspired by my inexplicable decision to relisten to every single TMBG song I have in my music collection.  Who would’ve thought it would take so long, considering that they rarely write a song over three minutes.  But look past the band’s 16 albums (and counting) and you’ll find a ton of other stuff; EPs, compilations of rejected tunes, digital-only fanclub collections, answering machine messages, strange one-off projects, and a lot more, much of which I would assume doesn’t get a thorough listen from anyone who’s not a total fanatic.  They Might be Giants, like most bands on this planet, have a reputation for not always putting the best songs on their studio albums, which is why I took it upon myself to see if I could create a killer collection (at least, something as good as any studio album they’ve done) entirely out of material that more casual fans may not know about.

Here are the rules:

  1. Nothing that appeared on any of the band’s studio albums in any form, so no demos, live tracks, remixes, etc.  This includes Long Tall Weekend.  I decided to exclude the studio tracks from the sort-of-live Severe Tire Damage album because let’s face it, nobody thinks “Doctor Worm” is a rarity, given that they play it at practically every show they’ve after done.  Likewise, “Boss of Me” is also out.
  2. Linnell’s solo album and Flansburgh’s Mono Puff are fair game.  Technically not TMBG but hey, close enough.
  3. Maximum length: 60 minutes, or slightly longer than John Henry.
  4. Linnell songs in Red, Flansburgh in Green.  If the song’s a cover or I can’t tell who wrote it then it’s in black.

Let’s take it away:

1. Sensurround (S-E-X-X-Y single, 1996)
What better way to kick this off than with one of Linnell’s best songs and one of the best B-sides period, not to mention perhaps the greatest song ever written about a human zygote? (“If Mom had known she’d be expecting/she would’ve gone to see ‘Jaws’/instead of the one where the sound effects/came right up through the floor/and I’d be differently formed”)  Linnell was looking to expand his catchy rock formula around this time and write songs that were a bit more complex (or had real bridges) which really started to pay off.  As to why it didn’t make the album, TMBG apparently felt the tune sounded too much like “Spiraling Shape” and decided to cut it from Factory Showroom.  In my opinion they would’ve been the two best songs on the album.  Instead, “Sensurround” was relegated to a B-side, though it also showed up in an unlikely place, the soundtrack to the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers movie.  The version there is slower and doesn’t rock as hard, plus it has a completely different bridge.  To me it feels like an earlier recording.  Get this one instead.

2. Houston-Meridian Theme (Venue Songs, 2004)
In 2004, TMBG decided to write a song specific to each venue they played in, releasing them all in a collection called Venue Songs, a half-studio half-live disc featuring 46 different songs that were essentially made up on the spot (TMBG also released an album and an EP that year).  It’s an entertaining listen and I think all fans should hear it at least once, especially if you think tended to overthink things in their later years.  Obviously not all of it works but there are several good ones, most of which I had to omit here.  But “Houston” makes the cut, as it so perfectly captures the sort of power-pop that the band excels in.

3. It’s Fun to Steal (Mono Puff – It’s Fun to Steal, 1998)
Mono Puff was Flansburgh’s side project, formed in 1995 with Hal Cragin and Steve Calhoon, with guests like Mark Feldman and Soul Coughing’s Yuval Gabay.  Sadly it’s not all that exciting – both albums are alright but they definitely sound like side projects, with all that entails.  Regardless, some pretty good tunes, including this fun little reggae/soul singalong with a strangely moralistic message (for these guys, at least).

4. We Live in a Dump (Cast Your Pod to the Wind, 2007)
TMBG play this song live so much I wonder why they didn’t just put it on an album.  A good counterpoint for those who say these boys aren’t as much fun as they used to be. 

5. Nightgown of the Sullen Moon (They’ll Need a Crane EP, 1989)
I debated whether or not the Miscellaneous T stuff should count because it’s not really all that rare (most fans should have it).  But skipping it would mean missing out on some really great B-sides, including this bit of Linnell wordsalad that really digs its claws into you.  If I were to demonstrate all that was great about John Linnell in about two minutes…

6. Through Being Cool (Sky High Soundtrack, 2005)
I had no idea this existed until recently; I haven’t seen Sky High (not a lot of people did, apparently) but its soundtrack had a neat concept, covers of 80’s songs by modern-ish acts.  The original is by Devo of course, though TMBG take some liberties with the lyrics (perhaps cleaning them up a bit?), and wouldn’t you know it it’s right in their wheelhouse.  More guitars and a lot less synths, but no worse for the wear.

7. T. L. A. (Venue Songs, 2004)
Speaking of Devo, here’s a song written specifically for a venue in Philly, complete with a stupid but effective hook (“How do you spell/tee-ell-ayy?”)  That’s probably the main appeal of Venue Songs really, you get to hear TMBG imitate a lot of bands they (probably) admire, usually in nonsensical fashion.  The video features three men in jumpsuits doing a YMCA-style dance.

8. Robert Lowell (TMBG Unlimited January, 2001)
TMBG’s songwriting seemed to slip a bit in the late-90’s, making it all the more confusing that this gem was confined to the obscure TMBG Unlimited project and the even more obscure McSweeneys Magazine Soundtrack disc.  Great, straightforward rock song with a neat lyrical concept (all disjointed lines from Robert Lowell poems).  I think the concept came from the McSweeney’s magazine which may be ultimately why it didn’t go on Mink Car, but given a full production job it could’ve easily been a standout.  Also titled “I Am 40: Memories of West St, and Lepke”.  Both Johns had recently turned 40 when this was written.

9. Your Mom’s Alright (Mink Car Bonus Tracks, 2001)
Featuring Mike Doughty and the Elegant Too, this doesn’t really scan as a TMBG song (Doughty handles almost all the vocals) but it’s plenty fine, and most likely would’ve caused a lot less friction than “Mr. Xcitement” did.  Maybe I’m wrong though, the folks at TMBW rank this one rather low, right next to “The Velvet Ape” and “(She Was A) Hotel Detective in the Future Commentary”.

10. Fun Assassin (The Spine Surfs Alone, 2004)
I thought the songs on The Spine Surfs Alone EP were generally more clever than the ones on the actual album, especially since it came from a time when the band needed to jump out of their comfort zone a little bit.  This relaxing, uncharacteristically pretty song is sung by Jonny Craig (Spacehog’s drummer) and Robbie Goldwasser (Flansburgh’s wife), so I’m willing to guess Flansy wrote it.  I wonder why Goldwasser doesn’t appear on more TMBG material, her voice is great and I think she fits the group’s aesthetic well.

11. Art Mover (TMBG vs. McSweeneys, 2001)
A brief instrumental piece on the McSweeney’s disc.  For all I know this isn’t even TMBG, as the album contained a number of pieces from other artists, though there’s no accreditation so I’m guessing it’s one of them.

12. Too + 3 R One (TMBG Unlimited September, 2001)
Most of the TMBG Unlimited discs were mostly made up of demos, rejected tunes, and live cuts, but in September they did something pretty clever, a fake “battle of the bands” in which all the bands were actually They Might Be Giants under different names (not that they’d ever fool anyone).  “Too + 3” was their take on boy bands, not the romantic ballad flavor but rather a hip-hop singalong.  Again, kinda astounding how good these little one-off parody tunes are, even though they’re dumb, the melodies they write for them are original and pretty good to boot.

13. Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal (Purple Toupee EP, 1989)
Another one from Miscellaneous T, this sounds so much like a single that it’s baffling it never was released as one.  At nearly four minutes it’s the longest song they did for quite a while, but it justifies it’s length with a ton of hooks and clever lines (“I could never sleep my way to the top/cuz my alarm clock always wakes me right up”).  If you’re a fan you’ve probably heard this but it’s so good I couldn’t keep it off.

14. The Big Big Whoredom (Then: The Early Years, 1985)
I’ve compared TMBG to Ween a few times, a comparison that seems to irritate Ween fans, but I think if you compared early Giants recordings to those first few Ween albums you’d really be able to see them coming from a similar mindset, just without the drugs.  I mean lyrically they could not be more different, but they do both seem to write a lot of songs with the sole purpose of making each other laugh, resulting in a lot of unclassifiable tunes like this one.

15. Brain Problem Solution (Cast Your Pod to the Wind, 2007)
I don’t think the Johns drink a whole lot, but regardless I think this captures the feeling of trying to will yourself sober quite well.  Or perhaps it’s about some other kind of drug (“On my hands, I’m looking down, and I can’t see what I’ve got”).  Not sure which John wrote this one, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s Flansy.

16. I Enjoy Being a Boy (Podcast 1A, 2005)
As I just found out, this was originally recorded by the fictional rock band The Banana Splits.  You can hear their rendition here. Always thought this was a bit too spot on!

17. Now That I Have Everything (Then: The Early Years, 1983)
This was the first song on their first demo tape, a self-described “official pop song”, though it’s wonk-pop in much the same way the best songs on their first LP were (“Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”, “Rhythm Section Want Ad”).  This is a great example of how much the band can pack into a song that is only barely over two minutes, with an odd gimmick that passed me by the first few listens – the drum sample is in a different time signature than the song, therefore all the fills come in the wrong places.  Linnell wrote the tune but Flansburgh sings it, outside of the ending bit.

18. South Carolina (John Linnell – State Songs, 1999)
While John F. was in Mono Puff, Linnell came out with a solo disc of his own, and as you may expect it’s full of catchy tunes if a bit unsubstantial.  Amusingly enough the “State Song” concept was just Linnell looking for any sort of concept to hang on to, as these songs have almost nothing to do with the states they’re supposedly about.  “South Carolina” is the standout of the bunch, a rock n’ roll sockhopper about getting into a bike wreck, with lyrics that only Linnell could’ve come up with (“The back wheel’s ‘O’ is now a letter ‘D’/I was an ‘I’ and now I am a ‘V’).

19. Weep Day (Then: The Early Years, 1985)
Great lyric in the chorus here – “it’s Samba time for Tambo and weep day for Urine Man”, inspired by the curious hyphenation in Dylan’s “Tambo-urine Man”.

20. Bills, Bills, Bills (Dial-a-Song Direct, 2015)
Covered as part of AVClub’s Undercover series, in which they invite bands to choose a song from a preconceived list to cover.  On the first go-round they did “Tubthumping”, even managing to lay it to rest with some dignity, not surprising because it’s the sort of catchy and propulsive pop song that they do so well anyway.  “Bills, Bills, Bills” on the other hand is just about the last song you can imagine TMBG ever covering, so far outside their comfort zone that I give ’em full credit for even attempting it.  Somehow it actually works, giving the whole song a makeover and just killing the chorus bit
Awesome all around.

Plus, it makes me think of this classic line from King of the Hill: “Bills, bills, bills….why do we keep getting Bill’s mail?”

21. She Was a Hotel Detective (Back to Skull, 1994)
Totally different style than the version from the ’86 self-titled, though there are some tangential references here and there (including a high-pitched vocal section).  This was when they were writing songs with more than a couple parts to them and I think here at least it really pays off.  Sort of a dumb faux-disco tune but like most Linnell songs the chorus makes it all worthwhile.

22. Yeah, the Deranged Millionaire (Podcast 2A, 2005)
This song was written for John Hodgman and eventually appeared in a trailer to his book.  Similar style to “Hotel Detective” though there’s more of a flower-power vibe in this one.  Flansburgh can really throw himself into a genre in a way that Linnell can’t (Linnell can’t help sounding like himself)

23. It’s Not My Birthday (They’ll Need a Crane EP, 1989)
As of right now this is the highest ranked song on this list, according to TMBW (#17 – “Nightgown of the Sullen Moon” and “We Live in a Dump” are the next highest, at #25 and #26).  The lyrics here are as classic as it gets, with nearly every line its own puzzle to solve.

24. Idlewild (Bed Bed Bed, 2003)
One of the prettiest songs in the band’s catalog, this is a natural candidate to use at the end, as it always makes me want to doze off by the end of it.  Even though I don’t find myself listening to the kids’ stuff very often I do admit there are some downright gorgeous tunes on them (see also: “Sleepwalkers”, “C is for Conifers”).

25. Outboard Part of Man (TMBG Unlimited July, 1990)
I use this one as sort of a ‘bonus track’ – less than a minute, this was clearly recorded for the Dial-a-Song service, back when it was just an answering machine message.  As for the song itself – well, you figure it out.  I love these guys but they are not the easiest band to write about sometimes.

 

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