Friday, June 17, 2016

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part II

After the success of Flood, produced for They Might Be Giants' new label Elektra, old label Bar/None released Miscellaneous T, a collection of very eclectic tunes previously available only as B-sides or on EPs.  Many TMBG tracks are accused of being "novelty songs" due to their deviance from traditional arrangements and unusual lyrics.  Sometimes the accusation is unfounded, but for this collection....Truly oddball things like "I'll Sink Manhattan" and "Mr. Klaw" fit that bill, and showcase the duo's eccentric darkness perfectly.  I also find "For Science" to be one of their funniest songs (the backup singers really cap it off).  Elsewhere, there are remixes of "Don't Let's Start" and "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" and could've been singles like "Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought We Had a Deal".  MT also features the infamous conversation (recorded on the Dial-A-Song answering machine) between two New Yorkers who screw up the band's name and inquire how our boys make money recording these weird songs.  The woman sounds like my aunt who lives in Bensonhurst. 

Apollo 18 came in 1992 and continued the mad duo's gleeful march through all sorts of genres. The production became more elaborate.  The space theme of the album was a natural as '92 was in fact declared International Space Year and NASA gave TMBGs the honor of being musical ambassadors for the event.  There is some seriously good harmonization to be found within, and even the occasional rocker like "Dig My Grave".   A generous redo of The Token's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" forms "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)", albeit with far more cryptic lyrics.  The two Johns' delirious wordplay is in evdience on "I Palindrome I" and "Dinner Bell", inspired by Pavolian experimentation.  "Spider" sounds like the theme to a (demented) cartoon.  And then there's "Fingertips",  which allow provocateurs Linnell and Flansbergh to toss off snippets, some only a few seconds long, that will intersperse throughout the album via your CD player's shuffle feature.  If you listen to "Fingertips" in order, a narrative suggesting birth to death may emerge, depending on your cranium.

The educational tune "Why Does the Sun Shine?(The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)" and three other tracks were released on an EP in 1993. The title song was a delightful remake of an old Hy Zaret tune.  It was the first time the Giants would do something resembling a kiddie offering, a genre with which the guys would have great success in the future. Covers of The Allman Brothers'  "Jessica" and The Meat Puppets'  "Whirlpool" were also included.

In 1994, for the album John Henry,  TMBG became a full band, adding members who formed a rhythm section.  Previously, John and John used synthesized tracks and a drum machine.   The guys had actually utilized musicians during their previous tour.  For the new record, the sound was bigger, more guitar driven.  The songs were longer.  For me, it didn't quite work.  It continues to be one of their most frustrating albums in that great ideas - including a ref to Ginsberg's "Howl"- did not translate to musically interesting songs.  The lyrics are always amusing in a Giants tune, but the arrangements this time out were too traditional.  The only ones that work are "Meet James Ensor", a characteristically short and sweet ditty which evokes memories of Belgian's famous painter, and "Extra Savoire Faire" with its nice horn hook and Flansburgh's appropriately haughty vocal work.  The rest is just, well, dull, including the misguided a capella "O Do Not Forsake Me", which should've worked but is oh so heavy handed.   I've tried and tried with John Henry, to no avail.  I do enjoy reading the lyric sheet.

Factory Showroom followed in '96 and it was clear that They Might Be Giants were attempting to recapture the old spirit, even as they added guitarists.  It's a decent if undistinguished album. "S-E-X-X-Y" and "XTC vs. Adam Ant" are too self-conscious. "I Can Hear You" is a gimmick - recorded on a wax cylinder phonograph at the Edison Museum in New Jersey. My favorites are "Exquisite Dead Guy", good old creative weirdness, "James K. Polk", a catchy history lesson about out eleventh U.S. President, and the straight-ahead, somewhat sentimental ode to the Big Apple "New York City", which could easily be included in any travelogue or film documenting the Johns' adopted hometown.

The partially live album Severe Tire Damage was released in 1998.  Some tracks were merely recorded live with different (mostly unfavorable) arrangements, while the "Planet of the Apes" tracks were done in front of an audience.  As with many artists, a live album fails to recreate the excitement of being there.  The studio track "Dr. Worm" is also on the album, and it by contrast is a dandy.

Next time: The Johns exploit the Internet for more and more of their gems and a new studio album (with some older material) revives their mojo, even with a very unfortunate release date.

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