They Might Be Giants

TrackAlbum
Ana NgLincoln
Museum Of IdiotsThe Spine
Don't Let's StartThey Might Be Giants
The Cap'mThe Else
Nine Bowls Of SoupHere Come The 123s
OlderMink Car
Birdhouse In Your SoulFlood
S-E-X-X-YFactory Showroom
FingertipsApollo 18
The End Of The TourJohn Henry

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Contributor: Matt Roberts

 

When considering bands who represent the city that never sleeps, The Ramones, Lou Reed or The Beastie Boys all come to mind. Tough, leather clad street dwellers who give the city of New York its reputation as a hard bitten musical landscape. Even the jazz and swing emanating from the city is street-tough.

They Might Be Giants (henceforth referred to as TMBG) are the other New York. The New York of thinky, intellectual music personified by Talking Heads and art music that sought to look further than the streets and imagine a surreal universe in music. Talking Heads did it with the lyrics of David Byrne, John Zorn did it with strange, otherworldly saxophone noises. TMBG did it with quirky but well constructed pop songs played by a multi-instrumental duo, a reel to reel tape machine, and a Dial-A-Song service.

 

There have been only a few times when I have heard something on the radio, physically stood up, pointed to the source of the sound and demanded to know, what is that!? Ana Ng was one of those. It sounded nothing like what was playing on the radio at the time (1988, you do the math) and its combination of heavily gated guitar stabs, surreal lyrics and accordion were the sound of a door opening in my head that would never, ever close. Aside from perhaps “Weird Al” Yankovic, I’m sure TMBG were most responsible for ushering the accordion into the pop realm with any degree of legitimacy.

Initially a duo, TMBG consists of the two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell – Brooklyn residents with a knack for the quirk and a willingness to skip genres if the song demanded it, while infusing every track with a certain ‘TMBGness’ that is unmistakable once detected. They started very early playing live gigs everywhere around NY but, at one point, got the idea to start a Dial-A-Song service using their telephone answering machine. Super short, catchy little tunelets (a new one every week) would await anyone who called it and every album at the time had the number on the cover somewhere (the Lincoln CD has “Our Dial-A-Song awaits you” and I’m pretty sure I remember the self titled pink album having something like “Dial-A-Song, it’s cheaper from work!”). They have recently revived the service, writing a new song a week for what they promise will be a year.

 

If the first shot was Ana Ng, then the track that really got them noticed was Birdhouse In Your Soul, from 1990’s LP, Flood. With better production, a less angular and sparse affair, Flood still offered the listener a peek into the Johns’ warped viewpoint similar to the previous couple of albums. I don’t know that you could say that the songwriting was any better (it was great from the start), but the fat was trimmed and the production slicker – probably making it more palatable to mainstream audiences. Later albums (from John Henry onwards) would include a full band, but until Apollo 18 it was just the two Johns and their instruments.

 

Again, in contrast to the hard living acts of New York at the time, Flansburgh and Linnell presented themselves as button down nerds, two geeks on a mission to party at your house – but just not too late, I’ve got to feed the cat at ten – and can I offer you a guava mocktail? Having seen them on almost every tour to Australia, I can attest to the fact that I have never seen such an abundance of collared shirts, thick glasses and pocket protectors at a live gig anywhere else. The biggest controversy they ever faced was the inclusion of the full line-up in the band. Believe it or not, fans were livid. Bangs were shaken, eyebrows raised and severe glares were shot in the band’s direction for taking the decision of giving their music more room to move. It had outgrown the tiny apartment and was now looking for a suburban plot to raise the next generation. A whole chapter in the TMBG documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns is devoted to these dark days. Surprisingly, nobody was hurt over the inclusion of these interlopers and they were just allowed to get on with it.

After devouring the TMBG output over these many years (decades actually), I think I can tell a Linnell song from a Flansburgh. Flansburgh specialises in the more straight ahead rock/pop tunes with simpler lyrics, whereas Linnell tends to slide around in more complicated, wordy affair, accompanied by intricate melody and unexpected harmony. I prefer Linnell’s output but as with most songwriting combinations, their individual albums haven’t really had the punch of any TMBG recordings. Put them together and that’s where the magic happens.

How many bands can lay claim to having live fan favourites in songs praising the efforts of figures such as James Ensor (Meet James Ensor on John Henry), Nikola Tesla (Tesla on Nanobots), Thomas Edison (The Edison Museum on No! and I Can Hear You recorded to wax cylinder at the Edison Laboratories and released on Factory Showroom) and James K. Polk (James K. Polk on Factory Showroom)?

How many bands create tunes extolling palindromes (I Palindrome I on Apollo 18), ancient cultures and how much they rock (The Mesopotamians on The Else) or the eternal battle between 80s post punk bands (XTC vs. Adam Ant on Factory Showroom)?

How many bands have so many extra sections of songs that they don’t end up using that they gather them up together and stitch them into one whole Frankenstein of a song (Fingertips on Apollo 18) which they then proceed to play live. Not many I’ll bet. They go it alone much of the time and their fan base is right there with them.

 

Their inter-generational appeal has lead them to expand their empire to include not only movies and TV soundtracks (Malcolm In The Middle, Dumb And Dumberer, The Daily Show and more) but to craft three children’s albums, with songs extolling the virtues of maths, literature and science, on the albums No!, Here Come The ABCs, Here Come The 123s and Here Comes Science, while still releasing adult-oriented material. The kids’ albums are such a great match with the band that I’m surprised it took them that long to do. And adults will enjoy them just as much as the kids.

 

As I write this, a Rolling Stone article has just popped up in my Facebook feed: They Might Be Giants at 33: We’re (Still) Here, We’re Weird, Get Used To Us.

It makes me happy that I live in a world where a band like They Might Be Giants can make a living out of the quirky music they create for 33 years and counting, safe in the knowledge that new generations will find a way to them. With 19 original albums, quite a few live sets and collections of bootlegs, B-sides, remixes and rarities under their belt, they are still going strong, with their latest albums being amongst their most robust works (The Spine and The Else in particular being two of my favourites).

 

With my selection of ten, given the extent of their output, I have tried to spread them as evenly as I can. Given that they have more than ten releases, I have allowed only one song from any one album, and even then, some albums won’t be represented. I feel that this list gives a reasonable overview and works when listened to as a whole. Please enjoy!

 

Track by Track:

Ana Ng (Lincoln 1988)
The track that introduced me to TMBG, and what an introduction. Spiky, gated guitars (or samples maybe?) introduce a love song to a girl on the other side of the globe. Subtle introduction of the accordion lets it slide into the track naturally. Raises the questions, “Who was at the DuPont pavilion? Why was the bench still warm? Who had been there?”

Museum Of Idiots (The Spine 2004)
Starting gently with Linnell’s vocal, piano and bass, Idiots soon surprises on several fronts. First it’s the interjection of the blasting brass section to punctuate the lines, then it’s the intricacies of the melodies and harmonies. Then you realise it’s one the loveliest love lyrics around. “Chop me up into pieces, if it pleases, if it pleases. And when the chopping is through, every piece will say I love you.”

Don’t Let’s Start (They Might Be Giants 1986)
A live favourite from the first official album, made much more powerful with the addition of an actual band later in their career, though they still obstinately hold onto the quick 7/8 bar in the chorus just to confound people dancing. One of their first real anthems that the fans grabbed hold of.

The Cap’m (The Else 2007)
A favourite of mine from one of the later albums. A huge sounding pop production, with fantastic Beatlesque harmonies leading up to the chorus. Linnell imagines being the captain, but states clearly “People seem to think you can’t be called the Cap’m unless you drive a boat. Well, I don’t, I don’t!”

Nine Bowls Of Soup (Here Come The 123s 2008)
This is here to represent the children’s portion of their career. A simple story of an ichthyosaur who’s trying to use nine bowls of soup to contact aliens by fashioning them into a radar, whilst fending questions from the hungry narrator.

Older (Mink Car 2001)
A clever, simple track with a simple premise. Time is marching on.

Birdhouse In Your Soul (Flood 1990)
The big one, the one that most people remember them fondly for. A big, bombastic tune about a small, insignificant bird.

S-E-X-X-Y (Factory Showroom 1996)
TMBG’s first and (I think) only foray into disco. It sat oddly on the record, but after a few listens it grabs you. Suddenly, John Flansburgh’s nighttime imagery doesn’t seem so foreign and out of place.

Fingertips (Apollo 18 1992)
As mentioned, this is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a track, pieced together from various sections the Johns couldn’t seem to fit into other tracks or make into whole tracks themselves. It sounds disjointed but after a few listens it really comes together and makes sense as a whole.

The End Of The Tour (John Henry 1994)
“It’s old and it’s totally over now. I can see myself at the end of the tour, where the road disappears.” A nice finish that is at once hopeful for a future and wistfully looking back at a past that is over. They do finish with the line, “And we’re never going to tour again.” After which, they have continued touring.

They Might Be Giants official site

This Might Be A Wiki – the TMBG knowledge base

They Might Be Giants biography (iTunes)

Matt Roberts is a musician, audio engineer and graphic artist from Sydney, Australia with a blinding love of all things sound. His tastes are catholic, ranging from Esperanza Spalding to Slayer and everywhere in between. He writes angular pop and rock, crafts and remixes many varieties of electronic music, and fronts a Frank Zappa tribute act called Petulant Frenzy. More about Matt here and catch up with Petulant Frenzy here.

TopperPost #418

6 Comments

  1. Matt Roberts
    Mar 6, 2015

    For those interested, TMBG have released the audio of them playing ‘Flood’ in its entirety live in Australia last year. Of course, being contrary, it’s in backwards order. And brilliant.

  2. Matt Roberts
    Mar 6, 2015

    And another thing! TMBG performing their entire first album live. Also great.

  3. David Lewis
    Mar 6, 2015

    OK, pedants’ corner here. Weird Al Yankovic (written up here by Ian Ashleigh and myself) also had a tribute to palindromes. But pedantic pedants’ corner would agree that it is still rare. And great list of great band.

  4. Peter Viney
    Mar 6, 2015

    Many thanks for this. I just have the first album and Flood, and the Istanbul (Not Constantinople) 45 too. This sent me to shake the dust off as I hadn’t played them for years. Something’s clicking in my head about them being the inspiration for The Flight of The Conchords – 2 piece, in NYC, extremely poppy stuff, quirky instrumentation, funny lyrics. Hearing that TMBG toured Australia extensively, it fits even more. I presume they got across to New Zealand too. Yes, I know the Flight of the Conchords bill themselves as “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo.” I can’t comment on “Wot no?” because I only know the first two but this excellent piece inspires me to look further.

    • Matt Roberts
      Apr 25, 2015

      Thanks Peter! Much appreciated. TMBG do age like fine wine, so go for a look further afield!

  5. Keith Shackleton
    Mar 10, 2015

    I’d have to have either Sleeping In The Flowers or No One Knows My Plan, off John Henry. Why? My next top ten, coming soon, may provide a clue 🙂

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