They Might Be Giants – Flood (1990)

On YouTube someone uploaded a 6-minute video which is just the same Sesame Street music video playing five times in a row.  If you have a toddler you know why this is.  Kids have this tendency to want to watch or listen to the same thing over and over again, basically for as long as you’ll let them.  If you don’t have kids this probably sounds awful, but the truth is you begin to develop some sort of Stockholm Syndrome after a while.  You notice little idiosyncrasies in the video – the hidden edits, the actor who half-asses a scene, or the one character a quarter-step out of time.  The song starts playing in your head at all hours of the night.  It’s a small price to pay to get your kid to sit still for 15 minutes.  If I have to know who Pentatonix is, then so be it.  Who am I to get in the way of something my 2 year-old likes?  Haven’t we all had those moments where we wanted to listen to the same song on repeat for a half hour?

Flood_album_cover

What this reminds me of is Flood, and not just because They Might be Giants happen to be the guys behind both the opening and closing themes to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (two such songs my son is obsessed with).  I used to hang out at this card shop where we played Magic all day and the guy who ran the place had a three-disc CD player which he would put on shuffle.  The CDs were Flood, Prolonging the Magic by Cake, and one of the Simpsons music compilations.  I remember that because I always thought “Whistling in the Dark” was sung by Mr. Skinner and it bothered me that I could never remember which episode it was in.  It wasn’t until 2003 or so that I finally bought a copy, though I had downloaded most of the tracks off Napster already.  There are two things I remember – one was that “Women and Men” always felt out of place to me, being the one track that apparently never came up on shuffle while I was at the shop.  The other was playing this in my car for like three weeks straight.  I had other CDs – not a lot of real ones, but a bunch of CD-Rs – but they all took a backseat to this one.  I even remember my little brother complaining about it when I was taking him to school…”c’mon dude, don’t you have anything else?”

Well, I couldn’t help it.  Flood appeals to me for the same reason “Elmo’s Got The Moves” appeals to my toddler.  The songs are short, they’re catchy, they’re super-easy to sing along to, and they make you want to bounce off the walls.  Granted this describes most of TMBG’s albums, but Flood goes to some extremes in those departments.  You picture the band’s first two albums fitting in somewhat with stuff like Split Enz, XTC, Squeeze, Devo, and so on, and their stuff afterwards tends to be more in a guitar-led power pop vein.  Flood on the other hand feels so intentionally playful and uncool that you almost feel like you’re listening to The Wiggles.  It is not quite a precursor to No! or any of their other kids albums but it’s a lot closer than anything else they did.  I mean two of the three singles (“Istanbul” and “Particle Man”) were made into music videos by Tiny Toons, which is kind of how my generation became aware of TMBG.  There’s a lot of accordion and most of the synths sound like they came from a toy.  The lyrics are often vague and bizarre but not in the way that makes you want to search for hidden meanings.  The tempos are fast and the songs are short.  Nearly every tune comes off as a novelty.  They don’t do anything remotely downbeat until the very last song (even the piano ballad “Dead” is fairly chipper).  It actually reminds me a bit of Devo’s Shout, though obviously it’s a lot better than that.

“Birdhouse in Your Soul” is the distillation of all this, of course.  To this day it’s the one song the band has to play at every single show they do, lest the audience go home disappointed (to be fair fanservice is pretty easy when all your songs are under three minutes).  Even got a decent amount of radio play, too.  But it’s unlike anything else you’ll ever hear on the radio, underpinned by a twinkling synth line that sounds like an alarm going off in a video game.  The real hook is Linnell’s breathless vocal, with lyrics that look clunky and jumbled on paper but wind up fitting the song perfectly.  This is the song I listened to over and over again as a teenager, poring over every single line, screaming it at the top of my lungs when I thought no one was around.  Just mention the opening line (“I’m your only friend, I’m not your only friend…”) and it all comes rushing back.

The rest of the album pretty much follows that blueprint; every track is a miniature obsession, a little world onto itself.  The high-pitched keyboards give the whole thing a nice plastic sheen (“Twisting”, “Hearing Aid”), which is a bad thing on most albums, but here it just works.  Certainly there are a number of real instruments on this thing but I think the aim was to make this as synthesized and artificial-sounding as possible, as though you’re living in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.  I mean, how many other bands could get away with a slap bass like the one on “Your Racist Friend”?  It’s just a strange sound for a major-label album – the band got signed for Elektra for this one, bringing with them a host of producers (Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley) and engineers (Paul Angelli, Pat Dillett, Katherine Miller), and yet the album doesn’t sound notably different from the stuff they just did by themselves.  In fact the main difference here is that the band doesn’t attempt to be serious at all – none of the secretly devastating stuff like “They’ll Need a Crane” or “I’ve Got a Match”, no attempts at XTC-level power pop like “Don’t Let’s Start” or “Ana Ng”.  Instead we get “Particle Man” as sort of a cipher for the whole album.

This ain’t a bad thing, of course.  I dig the band’s attempt to make this album as fun and catchy as possible, and I do know younger me appreciated that a whole lot.  In fact one thing that really surprised me back in the day was putting the CD in and seeing the total runtime: only 42 minutes.  It always felt much longer.  It was hard to believe that songs like “Particle Man”, “Twisting”, “Letterbox”, and “Women and Men” didn’t even reach the two-minute mark.  That was really the brilliance of this band – they could say it all in a minute and a half if they wanted to.  Of course this is what made the album so endlessly replayable; the songs ended before you got a chance to get sick of them.  So you had to play them again, and again, and again.  The album’s brevity even manages to obscure what is often the band’s Achilles’ Heel – they often tend to run out of steam by the album’s end, and in this case nothing after “Whistling in the Dark” is really essential, though the songs you get tend to be fun little curios.  Hard not to like “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love”, as slight as it is, and the band’s theme song, “They Might be Giants”, which zooms all over the place.  Even the obligatory comedown tune at the end (“Road Movie to Berlin”) is super addictive, thanks to the vocal melody.  They just had the knack back then, everything they touched turned to cotton candy.

I remember this album being something of a sticking point with the hardcore fans, who were irritated that so many people seemed to know this album but didn’t bother with the rest.  The sales figures back that up; Flood sold a million copies, numbers they wouldn’t even come close to until they started making kids’ albums in the 00’s (it helps having Disney promote your stuff).  For the record I kind of understand that.  To me Flood was perfect, I couldn’t imagine another TMBG album being anything but a disappointment.  Of course I was wrong about that, the band had a lot of great albums out at the time, and they continue to make ’em to this day.  But I’ve always struggled to put Flood in context with their other work.  It’s just an album that means too much to me – every time I hear it I go back to the time where it was the only music on the planet.

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