Once again, dear friends, a busy performance schedule is looming over my head as I write about today’s album, and I am found with not a whole lot of time to kill, so I figured I’d go ahead and get started on the discography of yet another band I have been obsessed with for a good portion of my life:
The grand opening to the band’s rather prolific repetoire certainly gives off the impression of being a kids’ album, which is fitting because that’s half of what the band does nowadays.
Indeed, it was a kids’ cartoon show that first demonstrated the Giants’ lyrical thematic prowess to me, when they had 2 songs on the otherwise-terrible Tiny Toon Adventures on a special music-themed episode. The songs were Istanbul, Not Constantinople and Particle Man, and I loved those songs so much that I really wish I had been introduced to them sooner, instead it would be almost 10 years before I actually got into them, but now, almost another 10 years after that, I’m pretty well-versed in their almost oppressive cleverness.
This cleverness starts right at the beginning of the very first album. The first words sung on the album are the title of the first song: “Everything Right Is Wrong Again“. I would consider this song one of the stronger openings to an album, actually, as it encapsulates the mood of the rest of the album rather adequately, from the opening to the obscure movie references, and that wonderful keyboard melody that comes in towards the end, and my favorite bit, the fact that they sing “And now the song is over now, the song is over now” right in the middle of the song.
The next song, “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head” keeps the thing moving with another surreal musical experience, this time featuring the other John’s almost indecipherable singing, which he chose to use for this recording alone (he tends to enunciate much better on later albums, I do not know why). The video also serves as a visual snapshot of what was really going on with They Might Be Giants at the gates of stardom.
Though a bit of the element remains 23 years later, back in the band’s early days, they were about half musical and half visual show. They got known in a particularly tough New York scene to “get known” in, but the quality of their strange music and the unusual (though certainly not unique, there were many acts that did prop work at the time and place) stage antics are what really made them shine above the rest. This probably also explains why the album is 19 tracks of pure weird, since the songs were not necessarily written with a cohesive album in mind, but more to fit their stage act with weird, often humorous songs.
Speaking of, the next song “Number 3″, is a good ol’ fashioned joke song, filled with self-reference and loathing.
There’s only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third
Don’t know where I got the inspiration or how I wrote the words
Spent my whole life just diggin’ up my music’s shallow grave
For the two songs in me and the third one I just made
The chorus is broken up by a slowed-down record of a saxophone playing. Though it’s certainly true that one of the Johns can play the saxophone, they liked the sound of the record so they threw that on there.
After that nonsense is the album’s “hit” track. I think most people who talk about They Might Be Giants tend to cite this track as one of the more “establishing” songs, though I just consider it another quite good song with a nifty video. The song, in fact, is “Don’t Let’s Start”, and I would link you to a lovely official video of the song, but Youtube’s being a bit funny today by filling itself with remixes and slowed-down versions of the song set to the video instead of the video proper. I can’t tell you how much internet TMBG fans irritate me, I just can’t.
The next song, “Hideaway Folk Family” is another song meant to be done live, as evidenced by its more simplistic setup and weird “talk-down” bridge, then “32 Footsteps” is just one that I can’t really explain. In fact, I am going to have a lot of trouble “just explaining” a lot of songs so it’ll be highlights from here on out.
One of the better songs appears at the album’s middle portion, “She’s An Angel”. This song would become much, MUCH better in a live version captured on the album Severe Tire Damage, where the ploddy synth-bass is replaced by a tuba and the whole arrangement is smoother and more subtle. As it stands on the album, it’s not a bad song at all, and the lyrics are quite pretty for a TMBG song, and the melody is something I wish I had the bravery to rip off entirely.
“Boat Of Car” is another track I feel was recorded for a live show, but I do have an automatic interest in it since it samples Johnny Cash. Specifically the “daddy sang bass” part of Daddy Sang Bass. Particularly given the oppressive bass note that hits every so often in the song, and the song’s overall winning melody, I feel this song is a really good example of what can be done with music if you have the inclination. I mean, exactly what genre does one put all this stuff in?
“Absolutely Bill’s Mood” is another favorite, as it is one of the few TMBG moments where the singer just comes out and says “I’m insane”, and the sped-up guitar work on it is a thing of wonder. The way it happened was that a guitarist friend of theirs had written a guitar line and literally phoned it in to them on their answering machine. He had to play quietly so as not to awake his kid, so what came over the phone sounded interesting enough, but the Johns felt that speeding it up 2 or 3 times and putting it on the record was the only obvious course of action. I am inclined to agree.
The whole thing wraps up in a time capsule of a song called “Rhythm Section Want Ad” where so many acts I don’t listen to are referenced, it was as if the Johns were trying to expend their ability to reference other current acts in one go, as I haven’t heard a whole lot of references since then. The other cool thing is that the album stops on nearly the same feel it started in, yet each track is remarkably different, not only from each other, but from everything else I’ve ever heard then and since. I suppose that’s why They Might Be Giants enjoys the large fan-base it does, because there are no true imitators of the style. Unfortunately for people like me, who have less than 5 minutes to get ready to put on a show, it means that anyone who writes clever music in the Beatles-pop format are going to be labeled “They Might Be Giants influenced” right on the forehead, but you know, after so many years of that, I’m considering it more of a compliment now than I used to.
I may have to figure out how to better sum up They Might Be Giants albums in over 1000 but less than 2000 words, since the track-by-track thing isn’t going to work, each album contains a WEALTH of songs. Oh well, food for thought. Until tomorrow, friends!
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