Tag Archives: tmbg

A Tale of Two Johns: They Might Be Giants in 10 Songs

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.

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#17: Nanobots – They Might Be Giants

(Idlewild, 2013)

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(Image from theymightbegiants.com)

It’s always nice to hear from They Might Be Giants. For nearly thirty years now, the quirky duo of Brooklyn Johns have been putting out the highest quality music that you’re embarrassed to tell your friends that you listen to. Yeah, they’ve heard “Particle Man” and a more than a few people will confess a fondness for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, but if only they knew “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” or “Lie Still, Little Bottle”. If only they had been there to share your outrage when they ‘sold out’, dropped the drum machine and acquired a real band on John Henry.If only they noticed that copy of Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) you have sitting on your shelf.

I’ve been a fan of TMBG after picking up Apollo 18 on a whim and loving the hell out of every quirky track (particularly “The Statue Got Me High”), including the enigmatic “Fingertips”, which comprises 20 tracks of the album, with each track only lasting about 5-10 seconds. It gave the effect, at the time, of flipping down the dial on a radio and each station being equally goofy as the last. This is the most evident touchstone for their 2013 effort, Nanobots. With 9 tracks lasting under a minute and a couple only a few seconds long, the rush to get the hook and the meaning in in that time gives a little thrill and so rears the ugly head of the realization that they are attempting to recreate/recapture the feeling of x album (as opposed to the idea that a band working constantly over a span of thirty years is bound to sound like itself at some point). Fingertips, however, was more of a structured experiment. The short tracks (in this case, I reject the term ‘throwaway’) on Nanobots is simply the band playing its game of chicken with the listener and losing. TMBG have always been a band willing to and almost needing to experiment on just about every release that they make. On this album, for the first time, there is a sense of not what will work and what will not, but for how long it will work for.

On “Sleep” (my favourite of the sub-minute tracks), the song is interrupted every line by a wordless, harmonized “ahhhh” (as in every other instrument stops to allow this to happen). If this were to go on for three minutes, the charm would be lost – but at a svelte 43 seconds, it’s memorable, hilarious and even a little bit catchy. Similarly, the 16-second “Destroy the Past” paints a fantastic and horrifying picture with its sole lyrics comprised of the couplet “Let’s go backwards and destroy the past/How long will your oxygen last?” Any more information would ruin the story. The closer “Didn’t Kill Me” with John Flansbergh singing acapella I found reminiscent of “Her Majesty”, the unexpected closer for the Beatles’ Abbey Road.

The album doesn’t float on its gimmick, however. Excise all of the short songs, and you would still have a solid collection of quirky and, at times, complex tunes. The Johns have always been solid songwriters, belied quite hard by their funny lyrics or instrumental tricks. Their palette feels like it’s expanding even more in recent years, with John Linnell’s surprisingly deft turn on the bass clarinet on Join Us’ “Cloisonne”, or the layered saxes on the same album’s “The Lady and the Tiger” (my favourite track of 2011). The brass and winds are sprinkled liberally  throughout Nanobots, but the blowaway moment is the entrancing “The Darlings of Lumberland”. Fuzzed out percussion lays the bed for a rip-roaring interlocking melange of flutes, saxes and clarinets (and accordion) that fits together with shocking precision, each instrument a staircase in Escher’s Relativity. This sits in stark contrast to the incredibly hip drum and bass (not Drum n Bass) verses. A beautifully cut jewel that serves as a stark reminder of the power TMBG can unleash is they keep their faces a little sterner.

Even the knowing way they deliver their lines can change the shape of a song entirely. On the title track, the backing vocals delivered with a monotony (and a blocky harmony) that somehow gives it a slightly reggae flavour nails the feel of the song as it waves from straight-laced to exuberant. The sound of John Linnell’s tongue wrapping around the line “what is that certain je ne sais QUOI?” on “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” with such glee moves the song that much more to get the grin plastered onto your own face.

Check this album out. This is a couple of mature songwriters writing fun as hell music that is funny if you listen to the lyrics or satisfying musically if you don’t. They have yet to rest on their laurels.

10/10

In addition to my review, I had a conversation with longtime friend, fellow blogger and TMBG enthusiast Nick Zacharewicz about the band and about Nanobots:

MCJ: So Nick, you’re an avowed, nearly lifelong TMBG fan. What keeps you coming back to the fold?

NZ: My love of everything strange and wonderful, certainly. Though I must admit that Nanobots completely slipped under my radar. I guess because I though the band was too busy touring in the States.

MCJ: Yes. In the States exclusively, I might add. When you did come around it, what did you find strange and wonderful in Nanobots?

NZ: Well, as you mentioned in your review, “Sleep” is definitely a standout track because of what it does with sampling. But overall, the whole album really reminds me of their early stuff. It’s a collection of songs from various musical styles that all tell a story. Plus, I’d never thought that I’d hear TMBG do a song with the sort of surf sound that “Call You Mom” has.

MCJ: It sort of beggars belief, the amount of styles they’ve co-opted over the years and felt comfortable enough to turn into their own brand of amusing little song.

NZ: Definitely. I think that’s really their best quality. And, really Nanobots has just about every style they’ve ever played with covered: from Reggae to Jazz. I don’t think they’ve done much with Funk, though.

MCJ: They’ve switched to using a lot of horns, but nah, I don’t think they’ve ever gone quite funky. It’s got to only be a matter of time, though. How did you react to the presence of the ‘short’ songs on this album?

NZ: Oh, the short songs. After hearing about all of the theories for “Fingertips” on Apollo 18, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any meaning to them here.

MCJ: As far as I know, it was simply a matter of the band stopping when they didn’t see anymore to write of the song. Though I’d be interested to see how people attempt to weave “There” into any sort of narrative.

NZ: It’s disappointing that the band hasn’t come out and said that there’s any meaning to them, but that’s never stopped fans before. I think there’s something about them, though, even “There,” which is suspiciously placed after “Nouns.”

MCJ: I think they [the band] just get a kernel of an idea, and then run with it, leaving the fans to fill in all the gaps, which they do quite amply. Has a favourite track emerged for you?

NZ: The fans definitely do, myself included. On my first batch of listenings “Circular Karate Chop” really stood out for me. I liked its fun pace, and the goofy spoken bit in the middle of the song sounds like something from ‘They Might Be Giants’ or ‘Lincoln.’ But then, I started to get into the second half of the album, since I can’t help but hear a break after the clump of short songs running from tracks 13-16. So, now the standout track for me is the jazzier “Replicant.”

MCJ: Yeah, there is definitely a sort of side break – a musical sorbet of short little songs that get you over to the material on the other side and make you question how invested you should get into each song.

MCJ: “Replicant” is an excellent song, and probably one of the best genre switches on the whole album. The “do do do dos” really sell the mellow swinging jazzy feel. Also, I believe it’s the forebear to “The Darlings of Lumberland”, which is a track that, correct me if I’m wrong, doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before. Those tracks usually end up being my favourites.

NZ: Yes, “Replicant” comes in before “Darlings,” making for a curious transition. “Darlings of Lumberland” is a weird song. It doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before (it has the same sort of ghoulish atmosphere as “The Edison Museum” from ‘Long Tall Weekend’), but it definitely sounds like TMBG.

NZ: And, even though they’ve never really done much with swing/jazz, it’s like they ventured from unfamiliar territory into an absolutely uncharted place moving from “Replicant” to “Darlings.”

MCJ: Diving off the edge of the world, so to speak.

NZ: Definitely.

NZ: Can you describe what you like about it?

MCJ: It’s crazy – coming at you from every angle. You have a bunch of different woodwind instruments, each playing fairly complex passages but layering over each other and interlocking perfectly. Not what you would assume of the writers of “Particle Man”.

NZ: That’s very true. A lot of their songs have gotten more complex since their drum machine days, but it’s good to see that they haven’t lost their quirkiness.

NZ: Actually, you mentioned in your review that they’ve experimented with their own playing before (Linnel on the bass clarinet on “Cloisonne”), do you think that they’d be making the same sort of music if they’d never added a band to their line up?

MCJ: Nope. A band offers a completely different angle. I’m sure there are a few tracks that came from a groove the band made or whathaveyou. I can’t say which tracks, and the Johns are certainly leading the charge, but they would not have been able to be nearly as versatile, genre-wise, if they didn’t have the band.

NZ: Maybe they would have gone into seclusion for a while, but I wonder if they would’ve just come out with fully digital stuff along the same lines of what they’re putting out now. There must be some high fidelity Garage Band-like program available to musicians of their calibre.

MCJ: There’s no telling what they would have come up with. They’ve certainly been paving their own way ever since the technology barely existed for them to be able to do so. But we never would have gotten “Marty Beller Mask”.

NZ: (laughs) Good point!

MCJ: Nick, where can we find you on the internet?

NZ: You can find me at my video game and book review blog Going Box by Box (at http://goboxbox.blogspot.ca) and my dead language translation blog Tongues in Jars (http://tonguejar.blogspot.ca). Or you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @the_penmin.

MCJ: I will remind any readers reading that Going Box by Box is updated twice DAILY. Thanks for the chat, Nick!

NZ: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Malachi! I’m always happy to talk about TMBG.

And there you have it. Be sure to check out Nick’s tireless blog efforts!

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