Monday, February 22, 2016

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part I

Aaaand, we're back to continue this absurdly drawn out series.  For our third and final examination we'll focus on two men who truly embody all that would be a wiseacre musical duo....


I didn't really begin listening to They Might Be Giants (name taken from an old George C. Scott movie) until about 1996, about a decade after their self-titled debut album.  Their cover of "Instanbul (Not Constantinople)" played on the radio one night while I was at work and though I'd heard it before, this time I took notice. Funny and clever and breathless.  It was enough for me to go out and purchase 1990's Flood, their first album for Elektra and also featuring another of their still signature tunes, the anthemic "Birdhouse in Your Soul".   These songs became big hits on alternative radio, something that did not exist in my part of the world during Flood's original release.  But when South Florida's WSHE went alternative in the mid-90s, a new obsession was born.

After thoroughly absorbing Flood, I obtained all the other albums.  TMBG's self titled debut came after John Flansburgh and John Linnell's years of busking in NYC.  Around that time they also created Dial-a-Song, songs you could hear playing from their answering machine in Brooklyn. "Toll free when you call from work!" they advertised.  The DAS was around for many years, more recently replaced by an Internet version.  It illustrated how unbelievably prolific these guys were and are. It often seems impossible to claim you've heard every Giants song. 

For this entry we'll cover the first three official releases:

They Might Be Giants: Two men and a drum machine.  A delirious debut. Every song is memorable, from the spirited "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" to the country flavored "Alienation's for the Rich" and polka-esque " I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die".  A take on the James Bond theme opens "Youth Culture Killed My Dog", a remarkably timeless song that addresses musical tastes of middle agers versus younger folk.  "Don't Let's Start" would be TMBG's first well known track and has the line of lines, "Everyone dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful".  "She's an Angel" is still a concert fave.  "Absolutely Bill's Mood" and "Boat of Car" (which includes a Johnny Cash sample) would introduce us to the more bizarre, certainly darker side of the duo's genius.  The busy album cover looks as if a kid of the '80s doodled everything he could think of on his Mead notebook. 

Lincoln:  Named after the town in Massachusetts in which Linnell and Flansburgh grew up (NOTE: the guys met at the local high school and began writing together at that time, but did not form a band until later, when they met again in their beloved Brooklyn), their sophomore effort for the Bar None label and filled with short, hit and run style ditties that really begin to reveal their erudite oddness.  The musicianship begins to broaden.  Even as a mere duo, long before they would expand their line up, these guys encompass an impressive array of genres.  "Ana Ng", with its memorable guitar riff, was an alt. radio hit and had an amusing video. Much fun with grammar in this tune.  It also has an audio sample of someone saying, "I don't want the world.  I just want your half." "Lie Still, Little Bottle" could work for a jazz musician.  "Pencil Rain" still cracks me up. As does "Shoehorn with Teeth".  All of the songs do, really.

Flood: The breakout.  The aforementioned "Instanbul" and "Birdhouse" are instantly accessible and hummable, tunes with solid hooks that most ears can appreciate.  The latter song even inspired someone to create an actual blue bird nightlight that you can purchase!!

Much of the rest of the album continues to build the collection of under three minute indescribables.  The Johns collide samples with liberal doses of accordion to create such one-of-a-kind pieces like "Hearing Aid" and "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love".  "Letter Box" is downright danceable. 'Particle Man" is delirious in its lyricism and hypnotic in its arrangement.  The guys even wrote a song named after themselves, with curious lyrics such as "tabloid footprints in your hair".  "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair" is like a spoof of '80s pop. "Whistling in the Dark" is a good vocal workout for the guys, with one of Linnel's best basso renditions.  Lest you think TMBGs are all cryptic silliness, check out the more serious "Your Racist Friend".  Normally, when musicians best known for their humor try to tackle more sober topics, it's pretty deadly and embarrassing.  Not this time.

Flood began a era of far greater awareness for J y J.  I'm sure many of the longtime cultists were already chanting "sell out!", as the brand new album for 1990 had far slicker production values than its predecessors.  But to me, the manic artistry remains.  I feel this album is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in They Might Be Giants.

Next time out - The sound continues to get bigger.  We also get a collection of pre-Elektra gems, an educational EP, and some good and bad direction changes.

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