They Might Be Giants have been around for so long now and are so prolific that there’s no way they weren’t going to engrain themselves into popular culture, regardless of whether people knew that they were there or not. From writing and composing the themes of The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, to their songs being featured on Tiny Toons, to their collaboration with the Brothers Chaps at Homestar Runner, not to mention 16 studio albums to date, the two Johns from Brooklyn are seemingly inescapable in one small way or another. These points are only the tip of the iceberg, however.
Rounding about 30 years making music together, John Flansbergh and John Linnell are seemingly tireless with adapting to new styles, sending up existing ones, oftentimes trying the patience of the audience and always keeping things very silly. It always takes me awhile to parse a They Might Be Giants lyric, because they look at life from the most obtuse angles. “Ana Ng”, a potential love song to the one time Vietnamese smallest woman in the world begins with “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/to the name of this town on a desktop globe/exit wound in a foreign nation/showing the home of the one this was written for”. To stay on the subject, in “Purple Toupee” they describe the Vietnam War as “Chinese people fighting in the park/We tried to help ’em fight – no one appreciated that.” Theoretically, many of the things described in the songs are things we all experience, but you have to tilt your head at a hell of an angle.
Here’s ten songs to act as sort of a broad primer to this quirky band, though there’s so much to uncover, it’s hard to know what to leave out!:
1) Don’t Let’s Start, They Might Be Giants (1986)
Described as being about “not let’s starting” by John Linnell, this was TMBG’s first single – their first cry into pop culture as they started to find their way. And what a cry it was. Ostensibly about a break-up, few songs contain the strange mix of absurdity and melancholy sent to an intermittent jangly guitar rhythm as this one does. The narrator keeps trying to cope with what’s going on, but spends the whole song talking around the subject.”Wake up! Smell the catfood/In your bank account” cries Linnell, after comparing the subject of the song to a cat for about a verse, while a minute later, shoegazing with the line “everybody dies frustrated inside/and that is beautiful”. It’s a peppy, energetic song and the combination of pop hook and sad lyric would serve them well throughout their career. The balls-out commitment and refusal to tone down any of the weirdness gives that “two against the world” feeling of a fresh new band trying to make their indelible and confusing mark (there were no band members other than the two Johns until 1994’s John Henry) The video contains what would remain hallmarks for quite a few of their videos – weird choreography, goofy faces, black and white, and giant cut-outs of the head of newspaper editor William Allen White.
2) They’ll Need A Crane, Lincoln (1988)
From one of my favourite albums of all time, this is the one. The poppiest, heartbreakingist track you’ll ever hear. Second album in and they nailed it. As is often the case, the title belies the true focus of the song – a relationship in just complete dissolution as they cling tighter to the architecture of it: “They’ll need a crane/to take the house he built for her apart”. The song is peppered with clever little stories and observations about our protagonists, Gal and Lad as they come apart – “Lad looks at other gals/Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than Lad/He isn’t bad” – as the wobbly bassline (wobbly as in coming from an 80s synth, not as in dubstep) bops along underneath, displaying the poppiness of the track almost brazenly in the face of the destruction of the couple’s metaphorical home. Never has it been easier to sing along to something so devastating as Linnell and Flansbergh once again prove their knack for earworms.
3) Birdhouse in Your Soul, Flood (1990)
Stepping away from the theme of love, this is one of the Giants’ more popular songs, having been covered on Pushing Daisies by Kristen Chenoweth and steering just shy of psychedelia into silliness. Though the narrator of the song is stated outright at the beginning – “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you” – it’s a little hard to swallow that this is going to be a song from the perspective of a nightlight. The best moment comes when he realizes that if he were to the light in the lighthouse that steers Jason and the argonauts home, that he probably wouldn’t do a very good job, which makes things even stranger. Rather than being in a situation that is relatable, TMBG takes the perspective of something mundane and utterly nonhuman, and shows us its perspective – it just wants to be “the only bee in your bonnet” after all. It’s hard to deny it’s a charming song. The four-note trumpet solo in the middle sort of underlines the absurdity of the whole proceeding, though the song is actually a bit more nuanced than its predecessors, with a few distinct sections and a deft synth guiding us through the whole thing.
4) The Guitar, Apollo 18 (1992)
One of TMBG’s experiment at playing with convention, you leave “The Guitar” both frustrated and amused. After a funky bass intro, the titular instrument shows up and starts to jam only for a couple seconds before it’s found out and the introductory words of “Hey!/Who’s that playin’/Hey!/The guitar” set the tone. “Is it Jim?/I don’t know” serves as a pretty weak interrogation to get to the bottom of the mystery, but a much more interesting one makes itself known soon after. The tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” interrupts the song three times, each progressing a very strange story we get to see so frustratingly little of “In the spaceship/The silver spaceship/The Lion take control”, the first line ominously tells us, soon to be followed by “The Lion’s on the phone” and “The Lion waves goodbye”. What does the Lion want from us? It is unfortunately, never made clear, nor is the identity of the guitar player (though it’s probably John Flansbergh). Despite the guitar being the titular instrument, it’s really the saxophone that takes centre stage here, as it lays down the big riff during the chorus and peels away in the middle of the song, presumably out of frustration at not being able to figure who is playing the guitar.
5) Meet James Ensor, John Henry (1994)
“Meet James Ensor” would definitely go in the category of one of the Johns’ ‘cute little songs.’ It clocks in at 1:33 and moves along at a rapid pace, providing sad detail about actual Belgian painter James Ensor, who lived “before there were junk stores/before there was junk” and seemed to be quite a tortured genius. Seeming to really be interested in people learning about him, in the chorus, TMBG asks you in a sort of morbid way to “dig him up and shake his hand”. They seem to have good intentions, but it’s difficult when you hear a gobsmackingly well-written and saddening stanza as “He lost all his friends/he didn’t need his friends/he lived with his mother/and repeated himself.” A little space is carved out in the last twenty seconds for a groovy low guitar riff to come in and get harmonized by accordion and bass, which seems like it might launch into another song, but instead just ends with another appeal to “appreciate the man!”
6) Dr. Worm, Severe Tire Damage (1998)
Another biography here, this time of a fictional character who says he “is not a real doctor/but I am a real worm”. Whether this is metaphorical or literal is anyone’s guess, but it’s seems like he’s getting good at the drums (he’s studious – he’ll “leave the front unlocked ’cause [he] can’t hear the doorbell”), and he’s definitely in a band with bassist Rabbi O. As sort of a posturing move, he tries out his identity by saying “Good morning/how are you?/I’m Doctor Worm/I’m interested in things”, hoping that someone will “call me by my stage name”, so he’ll get the chance to put it into practice. Musically, the song is a front-loaded brass assault, with a few layers of brass introducing the song and giving it a ska feel as it toots into an appropriately energetic rhythm from the drums – this would foreshadow the expanding of the band’s instrumental repertoire as they get further and further out from the standard rock band set-up.
7) Older, Mink Car (2001)
There are few songs by the band that are more frustrating than “Older”. It crawls along at a snail’s pace, and the instruments provide just the bare minimum framework to cover Linnell’s quiet vocals, which are telling us “you’re older than you’ve ever been/and now you’re even older/and now you’re even older”, almost taunting in a fashion while being absolutely right. After a verse of this, John Flansbergh bursts in with a crescendo from the band to comment on the proceedings: “Time is marching on!” he cries, before a another blast from the band with a fairly assured “And time…is still marching on!” Dedicating a song to the maddening repetition displayed in this song is a hallmark of the band – they’re perfectly willing to hand an entire track over to this single concept and just let the people do what they will with it. My favourite? Certainly not. It makes a better story that they have a song like this than it does a song. But classic TMBG? Undoubtedly.
8) Stone Pony, Venue Songs (2004)
“Stone Pony” comes from the quest TMBG set upon in 2003/2004 to write a song for every venue that they played on the tour, on the day of their concert there. The result was Venue Songs, a collection of a short little ditties covering quite a variety of styles about the various clubs and bars dotting the USA (Venue Songs also gave John Hodgman the character he uses to this day – that of the Deranged Millionaire, who would unleash his marauding teams of baseball players on New York York unless the band kept using their magical talisman to keep writing songs). “Stone Pony” was the stop in New Jersey and has a very jazzy feel to it, with the walking bass and heavy ride action. The main beat is used to tell the short story in slightly increasing detail – a word or two added with each telling – about how the guy who stole that other’s guy beer just LOOKED like me. It’s a wonderful, strange little song and the fact that it was invented mere hours before its debut gives it a charm that it might not have had if it were overcooked in the studio.
9) Marty Beller Mask, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)
One of my absolute favourite little-known tracks by the band, “Marty Beller Mask” claims that Whitney Houston grew tired of all the stardom she was receiving put on the mask of TMBG’s drummer, and has been drumming ever since. Just hearing the concept affirmed over and over again has me rapt with attention for its two minute length, especially, when totally flat readings of Whitney Houston lyrics are added as a build up to the chorus as “proof” (“Don’t walk away from me/I will always love you”). The drums are quite low and supple, building the mood while the guitar spends the verses getting into a reggae groove in the offbeat and marking out time in the chorus. The whole thing has a bit of a grunge/lo-fi feel, but without being quite so noisy, with Linnell’s vocals sounding very matter-of-fact, if not outright just talking. Easily one of their most hilarious songs.
10) The Lady and the Tiger, Join Us (2011)
This song absolutely blew me away when I first heard it. 15 albums into their career, I was not expecting They Might Be Giants to pull out a track like this, ever, nor would I have blamed them for it. Their experimentation continues here, as a wandering melodic beat sets the tone for the mumbling, distracted vocal that sets the tale of the captive titular beings. The interlocking saxophones that serve as a bridge between the verses were totally out of left field for me. They’d used the sax to great effect before, but playing two different, but complimentary riffs that each seem to do their own thing, but still in harmony, made me gain a whole new respect for them as songwriters – not to mention, it’s hella catchy in its own way. The incessant, thesaurus-heavy rhyming scheme used is good ol’ TMBG by this point – “felines and dames in flames/will hardly serve my aims/do you surmise it’s wise/to have laser beams emitting from your eyes?” Every seemingly-disparate element clicks here and serves up a completely unique and compelling track.