Friday, September 16, 2016

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part III

By the late 1990s They Might Be Giants began to distribute their one-of-a-kind tunes over the Internet.  Negotiations had gone south with label Elektra and this new portal would of course prove later to be the primary method through which folks would get their music. But in 1999 it did seem quite revolutionary that Long Tall Weekend would be sold through a digital service (some promo copies of the CD did circulate as well).  I did not discover these tracks, which included a song about John and John being late for a radio interview called "They Got Lost", until a few years later when peer to peer services like Napster and Kazaa provided a platform for sharing mp3 files.  Napster would eventually go legit but in 2000.......many spent days at a time loading up on old favorites.  It was like Christmas morning.  Discovering the Giants' "Operators Are Standing By" and "Dark and Metric" was at least like Chanukah.

In 2001 TMBGs stormed back with perhaps their best more recent effort, Mink Car, on the Restless labelThe album was recorded over several years in different locations.  Some of the tracks (including "Older") were featured on Long Tall Weekend with different arrangements.  This batch is quite diverse, encompassing a myriad of styles.  Not that unusual for the guys but the sting of "Bangs" made quite a contrast with their cover of "Yeh Yeh".  Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing lent vocals to "Mr. Xcitement", and his sardonic voice is perfect to deliver some pretty obscure lyrics.  The last part of the album hits a stride with, among others, "My Man" (about paralysis); the aforementioned "Older" ("you're older than you've ever been and now you're even older, and now you're even older.."); the title track, done like a smooth jazz combo; "Wicked Little Critta" (almost a rap song, sung in a Boston accent and recalling kid street hockey), and "She Thinks She's Edith Head", which needs no description.  The fun was certainly back with Mink Car, but.....

The release date: 9/11/01.  I'm sure many excited fans did not make the record store that day.  Many of us can remember where we were when those planes hit the World Trade Center.  I was scheduled to go into work later than usual.  I turned on the Today show and saw the smoke pouring out of Tower One.  While I watched, Tower Two was hit.  It began a nausea that lasted for a solid week.  A horribly dark day.  But I still managed to drive to Barnes & Noble, figuring the new They Might Be Giants album would at least give me a smile.  It certainly did.

Side note: The documentary about the Johns, GIGANTIC (review later) shows a now chilling clip of the boys rehearsing in a hallway just prior to playing on a late night talk show on 9/10/2001.

A year later No! was unleashed on the world and I can't recall a more joyful half hour of music.  It would be the Johns' debut album designed for children. The same ingenuity is on display as always, but with far sunnier lyrics than usual that might teach you a thing or two about grocery bag contents and The Edison Musuem.  "The House at the Top of the Tree" is exhausting in its lyrical tail chasing, and "Four of Two" tells an amusing tale of one who waits under a clock. Another track, "I Am Not Your Broom" comes from the point of view of someone/thing who wants to throw off those "chains of servitude".   "Robot Parade" is a particular favorite, with '70s sounding nursery room music and a distorted vocal describing the relations between children and metal men.   In typical TMBG fashion, the liner notes explain that the final three tracks are to be played to encourage the little ones to wind down and sleep, only to have the second of those tracks be a raucous, sound effect laden rocker with a narrator explaining everything he did today.

In 2002 I got to see They Might Be Giants live at the long gone Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach, FL. Perfect, intimate venue for this show, which was lightning paced and wildly fun.  I didn't want it to end.
William Allen White, a somewhat obscure newspaper editor and politician from Kansas who died in the 1940s, had his giant mug hovering over the stage.  He is also visible in some of the Giants' old videos. TMBGs seem rather obsessed with him.
All through the concert, John Flansburgh cussed up a storm.   Not really necessary, but it did not detract from the high spirits.  The setlist was all over the place - things from most albums and plenty of seeming one-offs (made up on the spot?).  The most memorable moment of the night? The guys started tuning around the radio dial and would play along with whatever they found.  Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" came on and they had some fun with the lyrics.  Also, a sermon from pastor Bob Coy was allowed to play for a few minutes.  No blasphemy from the band. Coy in fact was preaching about the joy of music!

Next time: Some so-so albums, more kid stuff, and an unabashed return to the old sound.

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