i'm going down to cowtown, the cows are friends to me

 

They Might Be Giants

 

Allow me to make a large notice first: I hate nerd-pop. TMBG get to be the exception because they have such a good grip on the staff of good melodies.

lineup: John Flansburgh (nasal vocals, guitar) and John Linnell (equally nasal vocals, keyboards, horns?). joined with a backing band starting with John Henry, the lineup of which finally coalesced permanently with the Band of Dans: Dan Hickey (drums), Dan Miller (guitar), and Danny Weinkauf (bass).

review index: They Might Be Giants / Lincoln / Flood / Apollo 18 / Why Does the Sun Shine? ep / John Henry / Factory Showroom / Mink Car / No!

solos & sides: State Songs (John Linnell)

missing albums: the usual live stuff and a crapload of EPs

apex: Factory Showroom
nadir: Mink Car
overlooked: No! (I guess)


They Might Be Giants - 1986

Rating: ****
Best songs: She's An Angel, Don't Let's Start, Everything Right Is Wrong Again, Number Three
Worst songs: Chess Piece Face, Rabid Child, The Day, Youth Culture Killed My Dog

 

A brilliant first effort, certainly overlooked by those bastards who think Lincoln is the greatest thing since sliced ham. The argument pretty much goes that this is just a less-polished, less-consistent version of aforementioned presidential/geographical album title. To those malcontents, I say FEH! Despite the fact that certain sections of the album could pretty much be removed from existance by some evil scientist's Temporal Disintegrator ("Chess Piece Face" and "Rabid Child" have to be two of the worst songs ever written by They Might Be Giants -- though on a Three Doors Down album they'd probably be pretty interesting -- and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" is more bad Weird Al than good TMBG), there are just too many songs bursting with interesting melody, strange genre twists, and absurdist lyrical ideas for me to disparage this album in the least.

Early off, Linnell proves himself to be an arcane master of putting notes together to form pleasureable sequences. His talents are most evident on "She's An Angel", possibly one of the most perfect songs ever written -- and it's only two verses long! -- but he also pens a number of pop gems, notably "Don't Let's Start", featuring the ever-cheery line 'everybody dies frustrated and sad / and that is beautiful', and the album kicker-offer "Everything Right is Wrong Again".

On the other side of my head, Flansburgh scribes a couple of just-really-good tunes, particularly the synth-pulse of "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" and the left-turn-filled "Hide Away Folk Family", but it would seem from this album that his forte is doing unspeakable things to established genres: "Number Three" is country-inflected and "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" suggests 70s arena-rock, but there's absolutely no reason to explain why they are what they are. Then there's a hilarious send-up of folksingers titled "Alienation's for the Rich". Not to mention "Boat of Car", which is the strangest 75 seconds of music released in 1986. And that includes all of The Other Side of Life. Isn't that a great song? "BABY BABY BABY let's investigate the other side of life tonight!" Oh, Justin Hayward, we hardly knew ye.

Anyway, I like this album. Yep. Really do. Very much. I'd give it 4 1/2 stars if it wasn't so filler-enhanced. But as it stands, it is but 4. Not like these ratings really mean anything. I mean, it's not like I have a system. It's more a gut thing, y'know? Okay, I'll be quiet now.


Lincoln - 1988

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: the first four!
Worst songs: Santa's Beard, Shoehorn With Teeth, Pencil Rain, You'll Miss Me

 

Album 2 of Those Gents Could Possibly Be Rather Large Chaps' career is mostly exposition on the freaky thrift store-synthesizer-laced genre-mutation-enhanced...stuff...thing. Sorry, lost my train of thought.

Side one of this album is really quite excellent and overall very impressive. Pretty much the first eight songs are the reason to get this album: "Ana Ng" is another of those 'best song ever' things, "Cowtown" appears to be about sea-dwelling bovines, "Lie Still, Little Bottle" is an excursion into jazz (and it doesn't suck!), etc. etc. See, it's mainly once we get to side two that I want to run screaming from the room clutching my head in pain. This is where we get such classics as "Shoehorn With Teeth" ('he wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth *dodo dodo*'), "Santa's Beard" (in which Flansburgh sings as abrasively and annoyingly as possible), and Pencil Rain (in which Linnell essentially says "hey, let's make a majestic-sounding song that doesn't do anything for three minutes!"). Truth of the matter is there are a few good tunes on Side II, mainly the latin-tinged "The World's Address", ode-to-megalomaniacalism (?) "Kiss Me, Son of God", and that other thing...y'know, "They'll Need a Crane". Mainly side two just annoys me. And you know how hard it is for something to do that.

Linkin iz slitelee wurse then Thay Mite Bee Jiantz, sew wutevir. And I have no idea what that was supposed to be.


Flood - 1990

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: Lucky Ball & Chain, Birdhouse In Your Soul, Someone Keeps Moving My Chair, We Want a Rock
Worst songs: Dead, Particle Man, They Might Be Giants, Road Movie to Berlin

 

Well, another album, another downturn. Predictably, this was their most popular album, due to "Birdhouse In Your Soul" becoming some kind of hit in the UK, and "Particle Man" or whatever being used on Tiny Toon Adventures. (Note to self: start doing research instead of relying solely on Rich Bunnell's reviews.)

Anyway, I cannot pledge that this album has a single moment of ear-burstingly gratifying listening, as was the case with "Ana Ng" and "She's an Angel" on the past two recordings. Lin's Vox-organ-powered "Birdhouse In Your Soul" and Fla's lovelorn tale "Lucky Ball & Chain" come close, but I do not feel that they display the adequate mettle that is required by my excepting standards. The rest of the first half of the album is actually pretty good, with the classic cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" sounding rather like they wrote the thing themselves (not the case with future covers). There are several other worthy songs, but "Particle Man" is not one of them. "Particle Man" is an insidious piece of songwriting, designed to be as annoying as possible while still dragging its sickle-like claws into your psyche as you end up humming it endlessly until you're ready to jam a fork up your nose to give yourself a lobotomy just to make it stop

"Dead" I don't like either. It's pretty much what I hate about this genre encapsulated into one song: anal lyrics sung in an incredibly grating manner with not much in the way of "good melody". Now allow me to be distracted by "We Want a Rock", which is apparently about Star Trek alien makeup or something.

Side two continues the TMBG tradition of sucking. It's filled up with inconsequential ditties like "Road Movie to Berlin" and "Women & Men", boring crappy annoying stuff like "Whistling in the Dark", and soforth. "Minimum Wage" is hilarious and "Letterbox" is somewhat engaging, I'll give them that, but that's only about two minutes of material. It's rather unfortunate that their most popular album is also one of their worst. But of course, that's how things always go, isn't it? Damn you, Invisible Touch! DAMN YOU!!!


Apollo 18 - 1992

Rating: ****
Best songs: Fingertips, I Palindrome I, The Guitar, Turn Around
Worst songs: Space Suit, Dinner Bell, Hypnotist of Ladies, If I Wasn't Shy

 

I am of two minds concerning this album. Half the time, I think "oh, what a great album that is! certainly one of their finest." But the rest of the time, it always seems that some of the songs are...lacking. Case in point: They end the album with an instrumental. An instrumental! This is They Might Be Giants, not the bloody Ventures! Did you ever see the Bloody Ventures at CBGB's? They rocked. Well, as I was saying, "Dinner Bell" is an incredibly dippy showtune-ey Linnell song, and the Flansburgh songs "If I Wasn't Shy" and "Hypnotist of Ladies" accomplish about as much as crying out "by the power of Grayskull!" without holding the sword. Or something like that. I'm not that good at 80s cartoon references.

Good songs. Plenty of them. The centerpiece of the album is "Fingertips", which is only like 5 minutes long but occupies 21 of the tracks on the CD. If you could cut bits of songs up and stick them in a hat and pull them out at random, this is pretty much what it would sound like. I'm more about the absolutely wonderful re-write of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" called "The Guitar". Anyone who can take that song and make it listenable, much less enjoyable, has my full respect. Good work, Flansy. There are a lot more songs on here, but I'm not going to go through and name-check every one. I think I'll go with the positive opinion on this one. Yay!


Why Does the Sun Shine? ep - 1993

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: Why Does the Sun Shine?, Jessica, Spy (the first half)
Worst songs: Spy (the second half)

 

There are three covers on here and only one original. And that original was put on the next record. This thing is also only 10 minutes long. I think that should tell you just how essential a part of the TMBG canon this is. The songs aren't bad (except for the second half of "Spy"), and it's kinda neat to see the genesis of the full-band John Henry sound, but really, why would you want to spend money on this when you can just pay a few bucks more to get the latest hit record from Live?


John Henry - 1994

Rating: ***
Best songs: The End of the Tour, Subliminal, I Should Be Allowed to Think, Spy (the first half)
Worst songs: Unrelated Thing, O Do Not Forsake Me, some stuff on the second half, Spy (the second half)

 

Good Lorne Michaels, who ordered the hour-long They Might Be Giants album? See, they got their wish, now they're a real band. Unfortunately they failed to realize that having fleshed-out songs would lengthen the running times, so they kept to their "let's stick a bunch of songs on the album" work ethic. And the result of this is the album is way too long.

On the upside, however, having real instruments instead of a couple cheap synthesizers means that there's much less of a proclivity towards the songs being arranged as ingratiating bouncy quirky nerd-pop tunes. This time, the crapiness is centered in lame-ass genre excercises: "Unrelated Thing" and "O Do Not Forsake Me" are ill-advised stabs at country and barbershop, respectively, and the second half of the otherwise-brilliant "Spy" is a herky-jerky bit of free jazz freakout that serves mainly to make me shake my head and rhetorically ask "why?". "Stomp Box" may include a reference to Hamlet, but for god's sake, it's a song about a distortion pedal. If that's not illegal, it should be. And there are a few uninteresting horn-embellished songs, most notably "Extra Savoir-Faire" and "Dirt Bike" (a song about a dirt bike? scratch my earlier statement, this should be illegal).

Okay, since I've bitched for a paragraph, here's what I like: "The End of the Tour" is another of those songs that overshadow a lot of the rest of the album's material, but the opener "Subliminal" and song-that-follows-the-opener "Snail Shell" come pretty close. The aforementioned first half of "Spy" is a brilliant bit of James Bond/surf music. Most of the first half is pretty good, really, but since there's so many freaking songs on here, it's hard to get a good scope without blabbering on about a bunch of songtitles. I'll just conclude with this generalization: it's got some great material, but way too much filler.


Factory Showroom - 1996

Rating: ****1/2
Best songs: Till My Head Falls Off, Spiraling Shape, Metal Detector, Pet Name
Worst songs: How Can I Sing Like a Girl?

 

Well, it took a decade and six albums for them to figure out the reason why there aren't usually more than 12 or so songs on an album. Can you kids at home guess why?

That's right! It's because the extra songs tend to be filler material that should be relegated to expensive import singles that only the dedicated fans will buy. So thankfully they for once elected to leave off the stinkables that have choked up the last third of nearly every previous album of theirs. There's only one song I can qualify as bad on here, and that's Flansy's excrutiating "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?". Easy, Flans, get hit in the groin with a football.

That leaves twelve good-to-great songs. IN-credible! Subtle oddness abounds: "Exquisite Dead Guy" is built on a repetative theme that switches between vocals and cello, "Till My Head Falls Off" features possibly the most nonsensical yet completely sane opening lines in the history of the human race, and "I Can Hear You", for no apparent reason, is recorded on an Edison wax cylinder. Oh, and "James K. Polk" (the obligatory song about a historical figure, naturally) features Neutral Milk Hotel sometimes-member Julian Koster on the singing saw!

Then there's "XTC Vs. Adam Ant". Now, being such a big fan of XTC, I have to take this opportunity to muse on the subject of pitting them against the 80s Pirate. The problem here is the matchup. Why did they pit XTC against Adam Ant? It's not really fair. Flansy says that "there is no right or wrong", but it's pretty bleeding obvious that XTC > Adam Ant. I mean, classic britpop band or lame 80s one-hit wonder? Who would you choose? And for that matter, who would win in a fight: a small but feisty echidna armed with a raspberry, or a graceful yet shy Thompson's gazelle armed with a pointed stick? Hmm?

What that had to do with Factory Showroom, I'll never know.

Anyway, in a lame attempt to wrap this review up: this album demonstrates best the ability of John & John to create interesting songs without sticking a bunch of irritating crap at the end. Thank you, and goodnight.


Mink Car - 2001

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: Man It's So Loud In Here, Mr. Xcitement, Bangs
Worst songs: Working Undercover for the Man, She Thinks She's Edith Head, Wicked Little Critta, Hovering Sombrero

 

Apparently, like XTC, TMBG felt the need to go on extended hiatus for the late-90s. Unlike XTC, it was a self-imposed exile, not an anti-record company decision. Oh sure, they wrote the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle, the only thing on FOX worth watching, and toyed around with mp3-release stuff, but for some reason they just didn't feel like putting out a proper disc of plastic and silicon for consumption by their rabid fanbase. So we come to five years after Factory Showroom, when Jean et Jean looked around, realized said fanbase was not doing very well without their nerd-rock fix (there's only so much the Barenaked Ladies can do!), scraped seventeen songs off the songwriting griddle, and slapped it out on the market without so much as a how-do-you-do.

Unfortunately they fall back on the tried-and-truly-flawed "let's just write songs about whatever" method, with irritatingly mediocre results. Case in point: the last five songs on here are completely and utterly unnecessary. The title track is okay, but "Wicked Little Critta" is a lame excuse to make a joke about Boston accents (a topic much better broached on that one post-Phil Hartman episode of NewsRadio). And "She Thinks She's Edith Head" borders on self-parody. "Working Undercover for the Man" also manages to completely avoid any traits that might present a case for it not being a complete waste of 2:19.

The good news? There are a few really sizzlin' tracks on here, mostly bunched up near the beginning. "Bangs" returns to the lovely melodic sensibility of, um, Factory Showroom, "Man It's So Loud In Here" is a hilarious take on that whole rave thing, complete with vocoders and shit. And you better believe "Mr. Xcitement" kicks ass. I will not take any insubordination on my watch! After that, however... Um... "Another First Kiss" is fairly catchy, and "Older" has some neat obscure wind instruments on it, but... When one of the highlights of the album is a cover song ("Yeh Yeh" in this case), you've got trouble. On the whole, there's nothing that rubs against every nerve in my being (like, say, "Dead" or "Chess Piece Face"), but this is totally unacceptable material. See me after class, Mr. Flansburgh and Mr. Linnell!


No! - 2002

Rating: ****
Best songs: Where Do They Make Balloons?, Fibber Island, Four of Two, Sleepwalkers
Worst songs: I don't think so

 

I suppose it's fitting that TMBG should make a children's album that doesn't really sound like it's intended for children. Aside from the lyrics being a lot more cartoonish than usual, and a public-service announcement sung by Mrs. Flansburgh, I'd say this is as acceptable for adults as any of their albums -- moreso, when you realize that the songwriting is higher-quality than Mink Car and more consistent than, say, John Henry.

Okay, so regardless of that, this is by no means a "normal" TMBG album. "Violin", to take the one example that everyone takes when talking about this album, is a droney string-arranged tune that wouldn't sound too out-of-place as part of an Apple Venus Vol. 1 track, except that the lyrics consist of about five words repeated over and over, as well as incremental fractions of George Washington's head. There's a mini-suite of head-scratchingly odd songs on side two, as well: "I Am Not Your Broom" and "I Am a Grocery Bag" are brief snippets of inanimate objects objecting to being someone else's posession and listing its contents, respectively. Sandwiched in between those two tracks is "Wake Up Call", of which I have no adequate description other than what the hell?

We could go on, but let's discuss the, er, more normal tunes on here. "Where Do They Make Balloons?" is an absolutely wonderful, fairly conventional pop song, and "Fibber Island" is a nicely bouncy acoustic opener. "No!" and "John Lee Supertaster" seem to be on the subject of arena-rock or something, and did I mention "Robot Parade"? Underneath that electronic vocal torture is a gorgeous electric piano.

In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Unfortunately, as this is not a Beatles page, that quotation has absolutely no bearing on this album. But I do think quite highly of this album, and regardless of the occasional over-cuteness of the lyrics ("The House at the Top of the Tree" comes to mind), I have to say this is probably the best TMBG album since..er..Factory Showroom.


Appendix: Solo Albums and Side Projects


John Linnell, State Songs - 1999

Rating: *1/2
Best songs: Montana, West Virginia, Arkansas
Worst songs: Nevada, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire

 

Q: What do you get when you subtract a John from They Might Be Giants?

A: CRAP!

Well, not quite, but John Linnell's first full-fledged solo album is a good example of why there are two Johns in TMBG. Annoying things abound on this album: the appearance of an incredibly stupid "Wurlitzer band organ" on several tracks, rendering them cartoony and just generally icky. He doesn't even need to use it on "Pennsylvania", which manages to be stupid and irritating with a violin, out-of-tune synths and a bunch of "la la la la"s. I'm not sure these things even count as songs.

The things that do count as songs are somewhat better, however. "Idaho" is plodding and dull, but it's remedied by the lovely "Montana" and energetic "West Virginia". I'm getting sick of these state titles, so I'll just skip down to the end. "Nevada" is a completely pointless waste of time. The song ends at about two minutes, and the thing just keeps running for another six. Why? So the running time looks longer? That's lame. Whatever, there are bleeding instrumentals on this album, and who wants to listen to a TMBG member doing instrumental music?

I hope you notice that I didn't trash any states in this review. That is because I live in an exceptionally crappy state myself, and as such I am sensitive to the fragile emotional state (no pun intended) of others who are forced to reside in states that suck. Thank you, and good night.


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