Tag Archives: They Might Be Giants

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

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2016, in review

Alas, 2016 has now drawn to a close, an event which ought to make everyone say “finally, thank God”.  Though make no mistake, 2017 could very well be worse; as much damage as Trump has done to our country this year, just imagine what could happen when the man actually holds executive power.  From a music perspective, who knows – hard to imagine we’ll lose as many legends as we did this year, though to be frank here all the stars of the 60’s and 70’s are really getting up there aren’t they?  Granted, some of these deaths were particularly tragic – Bowie kicking off a week after releasing his best album in decades; Prince passing despite remaining as youthful and busy as ever; Keith Emerson dying by his own hand.  Christ, who’s next?  (12/8/2016: turns out I didn’t have to wait long – it’s Greg Lake.)

So it’s bittersweet in a sense, but 2016 was really a great year for new music (so long as what.cd wasn’t your primary source), though I say that with my usual disclaimer that I’m not even close to caught up on the year yet.  My year end list is going to look a lot different than everyone else’s, mostly because I’ve heard like three of the albums that are mainstays on the yearly Top 50s.  So I’m just going to split this up into the stuff I really liked, and then everything else I feel like writing about.  And we’ll just call it at that.  Rather than prattle on about the respective qualities of all these albums (many of which I’ve already written about on this site…follow the links on the titles if you want to read those), I’ll tackle them from the perspective of time, since a lot of these are from people that have been around the block a few times.  I mean, a lot of these acts I’ve been a fan of for over a decade; I turned 30 this year, my son turned 2, I have a daughter on the way…time is marching on.  So let’s start:

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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.

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2015 Year in Review (an excerpt)

This year in review is going to be a little different than my previous ones.  As always there’s tons of discussion about whether or not 2015 was a good year for music, always a fun discussion, but for me the answer is unquestionably yes.  New albums by a lot of my favorites, including Susumu Hirasawa, Echolyn, Rip Slyme, Magma, Glass Hammer, Dan Deacon, Flynt Flossy, Todd Rundgren, They Might be Giants (twice!), and Datarock (sort of), among other stuff I’m a fan of, like The Tangent, Dam-Funk, Steven Wilson, Sons of Kemet, Towa Tei, The Orb, Sufjan Stevens, The Black Dog, Beardfish, Battles, IZZ, and Squarepusher.  Among several others I can’t remember right now.  Now none of this is making the year-end lists, except of course the Sufjan album.  Sadly I’m not really able to make a list myself, as there’s just been so much good stuff that I haven’t really been able to digest it all, not that I’ve been able to the last couple years either.  I have no clue what my “album of the year” is going to be and probably won’t until we’re well into 2017.  It’s just been that sort of year.  So instead, I figured I’d put together some disparate thoughts on a few albums I’ve listened to this year and call it a day.  Year end lists are kinda dumb anyway.  So let’s get started:

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They Might be Giants – Glean (2015)

91UbsNiKN2L__SY355_“There have been some really stellar 16th albums”, John Flansburgh remarked in an interview two years ago.  They Might be Giants have always been known as a prolific group, but lately it’s been the elephant in the room when talking about them.  Being in their fourth decade of existence doesn’t necessarily put them in rare company, but remaining active the entire time certainly does.  It’s not just that they’ve come out with such a high number of albums (Glean is their 17th album; their 18th, Why?, is due out at the end of the year), but rather the number of songs they’ve written: 807, according to TMBW (most likely higher by the time you read this), or as many as 1606, if you’re counting absolutely everything.  It’s enough to make you wonder if they’ve written more songs than any band in history, or if they’re on track to, when all is said and done.

It’s not like they’re slowing down – in 2015, they’ve committed to release a new song every week for their Dial-a-Song project.  While most artists their age devolve into playing “greatest hits” type sets for steady paychecks (or have since long ago), with new material both infrequent and inessential, They Might be Giants feel as creative and vital as ever.  Since 2007’s The Else they’ve secretly been on a tear, a welcome development from a band whose fanbase has prematurely left for dead on several occasions.  For the record I don’t think TMBG have made an out-and-out bad album, but much of the time I’ve been a fan there’s been a sense that the cat was out of the bag, and that the elements that made their early work so special simply couldn’t be recaptured.

Lately I’ve relistened to everything TMBG, and I do mean everything, including the kids stuff, the rare live albums, esoteric releases like They Might be Giants vs. McSweeneys, and all twelve months of TMBG Unlimited.  I love to do this in anticipation of a new album, though all the songs on Glean were previously released on the Dial-a-Song service, so no surprises there.  Mostly it was because I’d been following this band since I was 12, when their latest disc was Severe Tire Damage, and I figured it was time for a fresh perspective.  I mean, so many of their albums don’t really get a fair shake for one reason or another.  Everything they do gets stacked against their first four albums, and worthwhile, one-off projects like Venue Songs tend to get dismissed offhand.   They were really great up to Factory Showroom at least, but even relative duds like Long Tall Weekend and The Spine have their share of good tunes.  Their kids albums wound up alienating their fanbase, though I’ve always maintained (as many others have) that they’re not that far off from what the band used to do.  I’ve grown to appreciate them a lot more now that I’m a father and half the things in my house start singing whenever you bump into them; I love how much effort the band put into them, rejuvenating them both commercially and creatively.

Still, it’s fair to say that TMBG’s career has been in overtime for quite some time now, which makes recent efforts like The Else, Join Us, and Nanobots more impressive; they are at a career point where bands tend to sound like older versions of themselves in a way that’s more likely to just remind you of how great the band used to be.  The Johns don’t sound like they’re in their twenties anymore, but there’s something about this music that still works.  They’ve still got the hooks, the willingness to throw curveballs, and the ability to flip genres around.  But more than anything TMBG have always been about the mutated pop song, one which would be straightforward if not for something; an unexpected start/stop, a chord that seems out of place, verses with way too many words in them, or whatever else it is.  In a way, those are the hooks, the thing that makes TMBG more than just another band doing short snappy rock songs.

Well, Glean is more of that, and I’m not sure there’s much more to say about it.  But I will anyway.  Fifteen songs, some of which are very catchy, all of which are brief, often playing their cards early and getting out of the way.  I mean, even the ambitiously titled “Music Jail, Pt.1 & 2” is barely over three minutes, even with the big shift in the middle.  What tends to happen with an album like this is that you listen to it a couple times, become obsessed with one or two of the songs, but think “it’s short and I liked most of it, I might as well listen to the whole thing”.  And then a different song gets lodged in your brain, rinse and repeat.  This is what leads one to listen to the disc six times in the span of a week, not that I’m counting (but iTunes is).  All the best TMBG albums work this way, especially when you add in the lyrics, which as great as always (“You wanted tall/I came in under 5′ 4″/Then you asked for dark/I tend to sunburn a lot/As for handsome, well/Can’t help you there/So make of it what you will”, Linnell sings on “Answer”).

Thus it’s kind of useless to name highlights, since they tend to change often.  But Linnell’s “Erase” is the most obvious one, the sort of clipped-guitar power pop showcase that’s cut from the same cloth as “Ana Ng” (TMBW currently ranks it #5, below only “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Ana Ng”, “She’s an Angel”, and “Don’t Let’s Start”).  Though “Unpronounceable” is nearly as good (Current Rank: #20), and “End of the Rope” gets my personal record for “most times listened to in a row” (4).  Flansburgh has some great ones too – “All the Lazy Boyfriends” is a great anthem, and he’s getting better at his old-timey jazz guise (“Music Jail”, “Let Me Tell You About My Operator”).  The only songs that don’t really stick are the ones that seem unfinished – “I Can Help the Next in Line” and “Hate the Villianelle” sound like an orphan line expanded into a half-song; though charming in their own ways much, like “Chess Piece Face” or “Shoehorn with Teeth” were way back in the day.  Funniest lyrics: “Aaa”, about a man’s curiosity constantly getting the best of him (“How’s it going baby tell me is there anything on your mind/Aaaaah!!  Aaaaah!!!”).

They Might Be Giants – Mink Car (2001)

minkcarThe disappointing new album; we’ve all been there. You would spend months anticipating a new disc by a group you really like, rush to the store on release day to buy it, take it home, turn on the stereo, and…you’re not really feeling it. Alright, so maybe that first part doesn’t happen anymore, but still, we know the feeling of being disappointed and wondering what happened, whether the artist lost “it” or if your tastes are changing. Off the top of my head: Cydonia by The Orb. A Hundred Days Off by Underworld. Good News For People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse. Pressure Chief by Cake. The Altogether by Orbital. To the Five Boroughs by the Beastie Boys. Human After All by Daft Punk. La Cucaracha by Ween. None of them are particularly bad (well Human After All kinda sucked), but all of them were albums I tried to talk myself into. “If there was only like…two more great songs on this one”. “It’s a good album, it’s just that all their others are great”. Sometimes certain albums just mean a lot to you for whatever reason and it’s impossible for an artist to replicate that.

Mink Car was always my go-to example for this phenomenon. If you aren’t a fan of They Might Be Giants or you haven’t been for long, you may not be aware of just how particular TMBG fans are. They’re a band that have been cursed, in a way; they started out as a duo who relied a lot on tape effects (see: “Rhythm Section Want Ad”), used a lot of accordion, and tended to get weird or nonsensical often. Later on they turned into a 5-piece rock band, allowing their power-pop tendencies to really shine, and made albums like John Henry and Factory Showroom, showcases of great sounding, inspired, left-of-center rock, and…their fans couldn’t stop talking about how great the old records here. In effect, by getting better, they got worse. Can’t blame ’em though – it would be odd for a band signed to a major label to continue on with a drum machine when real drummers are out of work everywhere, just like it’s weird when bands who have achieved some success stick with a “lo-fi” aesthetic to stay true to their roots or whatever. Really, both John Henry and Factory Showroom are great albums, and I think the fans eventually realized that too.

TMBG got dropped by Elektra in 1996; as the story often goes, the person who originally signed the band wound up leaving, and the band didn’t really want to do everything the label was asking. This probably would’ve been a good time for them to break up (if they were ever going to), but instead the following five years, up until they released Mink Car, were maybe the busiest in the band’s history. Both Johns did albums on their own, Linnell with the endearingly slight State Songs, and Flansburgh with a new band called Mono Puff. They hooked up with Restless Records and released Severe Tire Damage, a bizarre live album that was only recorded half-live, with a whole suite of bootleg-quality improvised songs somewhat based on “Planet of the Apes”. Their next album was called Long Tall Weekend and it was released exclusively through eMusic, a move that in retrospect was revolutionary (they were the first established band to release an album that way), though I remember it pissing off a lot of people at the time. Not everyone had internet access back then, and those that did probably didn’t have CD burners, and besides the idea of putting a credit card online was still kinda scary. TMBG knew this, and I think they held back a little – Long Tall Weekend was easily their worst studio album at the time. Comprised mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut for Factory Showroom, it’s low on hooks and low on effort; there are some good songs (“Rat Patrol”, “Lullaby to Nightmares”, actually a John Henry outtake), but it sounds like the eMusic idea came first and the album second. But I think their fans understood that. Their music continued to be hard to get ahold of – they did a lot more through eMusic, including an EP and a monthly service in which subscribers could hear a bunch of demos and other stuff from the vault. They soundtracked a magazine, story by story (also low-effort, but pretty entertaining). I think the Malcolm in the Middle theme song was done around this time, too. And so on.

This was all going on when I was getting into the band, so I remember this well. Between the fans I knew and the ones I saw on message boards, the consensus was that TMBG needed to stop dicking around and release something that people could y’know, hold in their hands and put in their stereo. But Mink Car was doomed from the start. First of all, it wound up with a release date of 9/11/2001, supremely unlucky for any band, especially for one straight out of Brooklyn. Secondly, the fans had heard a lot of the material already. Between Long Tall Weekend, the accompanying EP, Severe Tire Damage, the McSweeney’s disc, and the “Boss of Me” single, a bunch of these songs were released already. Some of these songs had been played live for years. And if you subscribed to They Might be Giants Unlimited, you already had most of these songs. As far as I can tell the only truly new song of the 17 on here was “Hopeless Bleak Despair”. Yes, a lot of them were re-recorded for Mink Car, but often in ways that made them worse – “Cyclops Rock” drops the ska part and instead includes a truly ugly bridge, “Older” replaces the guitars with a couple of horns that’ll likely get on your nerves (a rauschpfeife and a sarrusophone, according to the wiki), “Another First Kiss” gets turned into a wimpy pop ballad, and “She Thinks She’s Edith Head”, now on its 4th appearance on a TMBG release, feels sapped of energy. Not helping the cause was the press release, more or less claiming that this was a return to the sound of Flood, their most popular album, and therefore the one their fans most likely had an irrational emotional connection to.

Well, that’s what happens when you give TMBG too much time to think. They’ve always been a band that have worked well with constraints, and I think the consensus was that they just overthought this one. Mink Car Is full of guest appearances and features different producers on every track. There’s almost no cohesion, with each song sounding like it was recorded in a different session, as though the band has no idea what sound they’re going for. It’s full of post-production effects like drum loops and record scratches, sounds that are undeniably attached to a certain time frame. The fans poked holes in nearly every song here, deriding them for being dumb novelty stuff or too far outside their comfort zone. Which of course only proves that TMBG really couldn’t win. God only knows why “Shoehorn With Teeth” or “Chess Piece Face” get a pass but “Wicked Little Critta” doesn’t. Why the goofing off on “Spyder” is funny and whimsical but the goofing off on “Mr. Xcitement” is embarrassing. I guess it really is all in the ear of the beholder but it sure feels a bit like certain albums connecting at a certain age; I’ve always thought They Might Be Giants were a great band but they seem especially great when you’re a teenager.

Nowadays Mink Car is the midpoint in their career, about halfway between their debut album and Glean, their latest. Certainly the weight of expectation and nostalgia is lifted, and I can’t remember what the original “First Kiss” sounded like anyway, so it’s time for a fresh listen. And, surprise – it actually sounds pretty good. Concerns that they’ve normalized a bit are valid, but that’s been true since John Henry, and besides, they had just turned 40, and thus I think are allowed something straightforward and sweet like “Another First Kiss” once in a while (I just listened to the Severe Tire Damage version and it’s…not much of a song at all). Sure, it doesn’t all work – “Older” is the kind of song you only need to listen to once, and it’s hard to miss the big “INSERT CHORUS HERE” sign on “Working Undercover For the Man”. But aren’t all TMBG albums a little spotty?

Truth be told, all the hallmarks of the best TMBG stuff is there – sublime power pop from Linnell (“Bangs”, “Finished With Lies”, “Hovering Sombrero”), and neat genre pastiches from Flansburgh (“Drink!”, “Mink Car”, a 21st-Century cover of Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh”). The best song is a total curveball – “Man, It’s So Loud in Here”, a nightclub-ready banger that’s a spot-on imitation of every over-the-hill artist who went electronic in an attempt to win over a young audience. It all comes together on one absolute corker of a chorus that transforms it from parody to something incredible (see also: “Friends” by Ween). The other best song is “My Man”, which features the sort of shimmering, off-center melody that Linnell has proven so great at over the years (the lyrics, about the internal thoughts of a paralyzed man, are really depressing if you think about them).

And yet, it remains seen as that sort of disappointing album, something that got unfairly kicked around and never re-evaluated. Hell, I even disliked this one when I got it, mostly because it wasn’t Flood. That’s the price of making something brilliant – I thought this year’s Modest Mouse album was pretty good, but I’ve yet to read a review that doesn’t mention The Lonesome Crowded West, which has got to be frustrating for a band that’s clearly putting a lot of effort into what they’re doing.  They Might Be Giants released so much great stuff in a row that it’s inevitable they’d take it on the chin at some point, but they bounced back.  The year after, the band released their first album for children (No!), which wound up being a surprising success, allowing the band a second (and I’ve heard, more lucrative) career.  Though you may blush at listening to albums intended for children, the stuff on these albums resemble the early days more than anything else they’ve done.  I guess the great ones can’t be kept down.