Oftentimes, it’s not easy to call just one album an artist’s best, especially an artist as prolific as They Might Be Giants, it’s like trying to decide between Beatles’ albums. Having said that, of the many contenders for “best album”, Flood is the one I would say is the most likely for people who are lofty enough about music to decide on. That’s probably the most awkward “it is but it isn’t” paragraph I’ve ever written.
This is the penultimate album in the band’s “electronic” period, that is to say, the period where the bass and drums are fake and nearly everything is played by the Johns, save for some guest musicians I am far too lazy to cite. Despite that, Flood is one of the most musically dense albums the band has ever put out, there is just all kinds of pop magic happening here. In fact, the whole album, despite the minimal amount of musicians involved, sounds quite full and epic, and this is evident from the first track, which is nothing more than a “Theme From Flood”:
Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand-in-hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record, for 1990
They Might Be Giants’ brand new album Flood
I strongly suspect John Linnell was in charge of the idea of having a “Theme” to the album, since he has done the same for his own solo work. Either way, the thing is sung by many people, which might be a clever ironic statement since the album is just 2 guys. Either way, it’s charming and only 27 seconds long.
The next song is possibly the band’s most popular, and certain not far away from being their best, “Birdhouse In Your Soul” opens up with a trumpet, organ, bass and drum building to a bit of a complicated crescendo as Linnell (who nearly always sings the first song on any They Might Be Giants album) sings the following:
I’m your only friend, I’m not your only friend
But I’m your little glowing friend
But really I’m not actually your friend
But I am
And then, with “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch who watches over you”, he proceeds to sing a very lovely metaphor for friendship from the perspective of a blue canary night light. The melody is unlike any I have heard, and despite the plodding beat, has a aura of delicacy and beauty about it. Maybe not, the bridge contains some dissonant organ and trumpet noise that kind of BLATS loudly at you, so like the song’s opening above, this is kind of a conflicting, contradicting song. The mystery behind the lyrics and even the melody is something that has always interested me, so I have never stopped loving this song. When they do it live it has a dual lead guitar solo, which is always nice.
The next song is TMBG’s twist on a country theme and is sung by John Flansburgh, the lefty. It’s called “Lucky Ball & Chain” and the simple 3 chord wonder of it is broken up frequently by some diminished, disasterous sounding chords, particularly one after the second chorus which is backed up with an oppressive bass sax note and some crazy keyboards. Also, after the choruses, are some kind of pause and then random noise (the first sounds a bit like two cowbells clanging together, the second is a gun-shot). Nerds have analyzed endlessly about what these random noises mean, and that sort of thinking can drive someone crazy and very fat. It’s a gun-shot because there should be a gun-shot there. The End.
The song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople) is a song very well known by people over the age of 50, since it was a big hit by The Four Lads back in ’53. My grandmother loved the version They Might Be Giants play, which incorporates some eastern European tones and instruments, including finger-bells. The terrible synth bass of Lincoln makes a return for this album, but since the rest of the album is mixed much louder, the bass is only really “present” in this track and “Your Racist Friend”, a song about just that.
The next song is a wonderful and also lyrically abstract number called “Dead”. The instrumentation is simply Linnell playing a very interesting piano part, kind of what an 80 year old lady would play to accompany a church hymn or something. Either way, both Johns sing the song and it’s a very good song about having your head chopped off in a grocery store and then being reincarnated as a bag of groceries before you ever got to apologize to your brother for making him your slave at age 8. Yes.
Next is the afore-mentioned “Your Racist Friend”, which blends a nice hard-rock guitar and super-loud synth bass set all the way to “slap”. The lyrics are very straight-forward, which sounds weird coming from the Johns. Either way, after a nice thrashy guitar solo by John F., the song goes into a wonderful tropical sound at which the Johns used to stage a conga line to form at their shows, you know, before people ruined it by either moshing or standing still at rock shows.
Up next is a very special song indeed. It’s “Particle Man” and I can’t overstate its importance on how I view music and the possibilities contained within. It was used to make a video from the show Tiny Toons Adventures, which is a terrible show that I liked only when I was young/stupid enough to not care. Either way, both “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” were used in the show, with cartoon vignettes representing the former in a completely literal way. It’s about the cartoon’s duck character, Plucky, as a wrestler, fighting all these ideas as if they were wreslters. Triangle Man is a fat, androgynous character, Universe Man is really, really big, and he literally has a watch with a minute hand, millenium hand, and an aeon hand, all of which come out to slap Plucky around since it’s an entirely violent show. Person Man looks a whole lot like a character from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, but many of the characters from that cartoon were re-used in Tiny Toons.
Anyway, we’ve next got one of the more upbeat songs about suicide that I’ve ever heard. “Twisting” kind of lays it out there about a girl who has left a guy, and according to the singer, the guy’s inner monologue (one can guess) says “She wants to see you slowly twisting in the wind”, but you could totally see yourself doing The Twist to this song.
I am so used to hearing this album on cassette tape that I really want to say “on the end of Side A is a song called We Want A Rock”. I love this song not because it’s got a great accordion-driven melody, or because it has some very clever lyrics. No, I love this song because it’s called “We Want A Rock” which is an obvious play on the Twisted Sister tune “We Wanna Rock”.
Next, on the top of Side B, we’ve got “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”, a song about someone called Mr. Horrible who is antagonized at every turn by The Ugliness Men while his only worldly concern is the fact that someone keeps moving his chair. The words are the best on the album. Do I have anything else to explain?
The next song, “Hearing Aid”, is kind of an exploration into how many unusual sounds the Giants can put in their music. The answer is “lots” because this song just kind of makes no earthly sense at all. It’s quite wonderful for that reason, I would dare say this song probably belongs on their debut album, it’s so abstract.
The next song is a winner of brevity, as it’s called “Minimum Wage” and the only words sung are “Minimum Waaaage YEE HAW *whip crack*” and the song continues to play a japanese-inspired theme. That about says it, really.
I challenge any singer worth his salt to keep up with the Johns on “Letterbox”, as it is sung so incredibly fast that I don’t even know if the guys themselves can sing it live. I guess I’ll have to catch one of their upcoming shows where they plan on doing the entire Flood album live (they have done this at least twice in the past).
Speaking of tough singing, John Linnell sings in Johnny Cash register (not hard for Mr. L, he’s got quite a deep voice for a non-smoker) for the song “Whistling In The Dark”, which contains, as its main percussive instrument, a marching band bass drum played by John Flansburgh. The lyrics are also wonderful in this song:
A woman came up to me and said I’d like to poison your mind
With wrong ideas that appeal to you, though I am not unkind
She looked at me, I looked at something written across her scalp
And these are the words that it faintly said as I tried to call for help
This song may or may not be the direct inspiration for the first song I ever wrote, “The Thing”. We’ll leave that up to whoever is going to write my novel when I die.
The background vocals to “Hot Cha” are also incredibly low, but I think they might be supplied by John F., it’s hard to tell when the Johns sing in tandem, since they are similiar sounding on most recordings. The song’s got a great swing beat and some vibraphone, as well as a great piano break at one point. I just love this song for all kinds of reasons.
Then we’ve got a nice folk song called “Women & Men”, which is constructed out of some kind of abstract idea that the Johns don’t bother to explain explicitly, thus the entire song is a mystery to all the women and men who bring with them messages of love.
Speaking of love, the next song “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love” is one of the song upon which detractors of the band have based their accusations that the Johns are gay, mostly for the line:
John I’ve been bad, and they’re coming after me
Done someone wrong, and I fear that it was me
Sapphire bullets of pure love
Palpable nonsense, the song’s clearly about ?????
Coming in at number 18 (yes, there are 19 songs on this album) is a song actually called “They Might Be Giants”, which I guess was meant to be the Giants theme, though it’s hardly ever played at concert (except in the afore-mentioned “live Flood” sets). The best part of this song is the cut-up audio of some distinguished guy who is probably reading a children’s book being made to say:
Make the merry-go-round go faster
So that everyone needs to hang on tighter
Just to keep from being thrown to the wolves
That line of thinking makes me so happy.
The final song of the day is “Road Movie To Berlin”, which again doesn’t make much sense until you sit and think about it forever and then post your thoughts on the internet about it. I will do no such thing and will only say that there’s a cha-cha breakdown in the song that is both mind-numbingly irritating and irrepressably cool, which just might represent the band on the whole for some people.
With that, we’ve got the arguably best album the band has put out, although in my own mind, it would soon be ousted by every album that has come out since, but I have the same thinking about Radiohead that I have about They Might Be Giants, my favorite is always the most recent album.