I suppose it makes sense that one of my favorite bands that I first got into in my childhood because of their “cartoon appropriate” sound would actually go all the way and make a real children’s album. Today we’re going to talk about that:
They Might Be Giants had a mission statement with this album I really admire: to make music, designed for kids but suitable for all fans, with no compromise in the band’s overall sensibilities.
It’s kind of interesting to me just how far TMBG didn’t have to go to accomplish the plan perfectly. With the exception of the rather direct “Clap Your Hands”, the songs are intelligent, articulate, and musically exploratory. Basically, a band that has always had a child-like imagination when it comes to what you can do with music with the accomplished talent to actually make it happen is pretty much something that was destined to work.
Not being a kid anymore, of course, I can’t really say how effective the album is in the ears of an innocent little child, though I am pretty sure this album would have been acceptable to me considering the crap I would listen to and like. As an adult, I can say that I’m simultaneously thrilled at how good this album is, and slightly disappointed that such imagination doesn’t quite spill over into their most recent “Adult” albums, and indeed since the release ratio of kids’ albums vs. adult albums is now 1:1, it kind of diminishes my feelings for the kids’ albums somewhat.
Still, personal feelings aside, some of the songs on No! are numbered among my favorite TMBG songs anyway, especially when played live (which I had the absolute thrill to see twice in concert so far). There is just no denying a song like “Four of Two”, which is a Linnell composition apparently based around a real clock that is famously stopped on that time. He cleverly composed a story about a guy waiting on a date who was supposed to meet him underneath the clock at a certain time that was apparently just a little bit after “Four of Two”, and indeed, she never shows, but due to the singer believing the stopped clock to be accurate, he is never the wiser:
Underneath a big clock at the corner of 5th Avenue and 22nd Street
I stood and waiting for a girl I knew at the spot where we agreed to meet
It was four minutes of two
At four of two, I stood waiting for the girl
I was four minutes early for the date we had planned
I was planning to say I was in love with her
Just as soon as she showed for a two o’clock date
And the clock said four of two
At four of two, I was staring into space
She was not yet late, according to the clock
I was feeling nervous so I kept looking up
At the clock sticking out of the side of the building
And it still said four of two
The story just gets better from there. The other great part about that song is that, like the other songs on the album, it has an extremely strong melody that gets stuck in your head like nothing else. Of course, given TMBG’s target demographic for this particular outing, melody was of the utmost importance.
Indeed, that’s what kind of makes me “jealous” about this album, especially with one of my other favorite songs, “John Lee Supertaster”. It cleverly refers to the Johns’ age by starting the superhero-style narrative with “When I was 39 years old, I heard a story…” The song eventually talks about Muckafurgason band member John Lee and his apparently real (?) classification known medically as “Supertaster”, which is kind of awesome in and of itself. The song is a funky jam with an amazing bass-line and clavi and a couple of lead guitar solos, and the song is so awesome that I kind of wish it had been written by adults, and really it might have been? It’s a conflicting thing, but it makes me wonder what would happen if TMBG wrote a song this funky for the over-10′s.
Sure there are some obviously “kid” tunes, like “In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle”, featuring Flansburgh’s wife on vocals. It’s quite obviously a song about not crossing the street in the middle of the block, and is actually a little irritating, for nothing else than for Robin Goldwasser’s terrible “N’Yawk” accent. Nit-picking, I know, especially given that I listen to Country music all the time, but I can’t help what I like.
The other song, which doesn’t seem to have a place anywhere, is “I Am A Grocery Bag”, which is unusual both for being lyrically nothing more than a grocery list and a bunch of unusual sounds, but for also referring all the back to Flood with its reference (intentional or not) to “Dead”.
“The House At The Top Of The Tree” is pretty great though, as it explores my favorite element of John Linnell’s songwriting, where he builds songs out of seemingly disconcerted nouns and kind of tells a story that makes no sense but can be perfectly imagined, and he almost always seems to pull out his best melodies and song arrangements out for those types of songs (see also: “Certain People I Could Name”, State Songs, and the two albums I haven’t talked about yet, actually I guess you can’t look at those at this time.)
Some other really cool songs that sort of “belong” are the bassist-Danny-Weinkauf-penned “Where Do They Make Balloons?” and the title track, which playfully “tells it like it is” with parents and their rampant negativity. Of course, TMBG don’t take the mischievous route and condemn parents for their usage of that particular word, but instead just turns the action into a song, as if subtly telling the kids they’re on their side.
The best part, however, is the album’s end. It was designed, in TMBG’s own words, to lull the listener to sleep. Indeed, it starts with a song that could have been written by Simon & Garfunkel called “Lazyhead & Sleepybones” which is about two friends who argue by agreeing:
When Sleepy Bones says he’s feeling tired
Lazy Head wants to rest
When Lazy Head says it’s “number one”
Sleepy Bones says it’s “best”
That song is followed up by a song that is kind of mischievous in its own right, being a “noisy” song about going to bed. I really kind of dig the song, especially for its array of random sound effects such as ticking clocks, a game of ping pong, animal noises, all kinds of stuff. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to sleep through that, but I can sleep through any indie rock song, so I guess it’s possible.
The final song is actually one of the most beautiful pieces of music TMBG have ever produced. At least the live version of “Sleepwalkers” is an incredible song in their catalog, as it features two guitars being mute-picked in a harmonic and arhythmical pattern, and every line of lyrics is punctuated by left-hand piano action as the drums form a cadence in the background. The song is simply about people who sleep walk and how they shouldn’t be awoken, but I find myself entranced by this song, and always count it among my favorite tracks. The actual album version doesn’t contain guitar until the bridge, which is a few measures of “rock”, but the unfortunate choice of harsh tuned percussion (xylophone or glockenspiel, I have no idea) takes away from the melody somewhat. Either way, a stand-out track in my opinion.
So yes, TMBG would go on to produce more kids’ albums, themed after letters, numbers, science, and who knows what else (I’m holding out for a History album myself, given how well the band does with that). It’s kind of disheartening, sometimes, to see less work going into their smaller and smaller regular studio albums, but I can’t really complain, I sort of feel like I’m growing out of the band quicker and quicker with every new album that comes out, but who knows? Someday I might have kids, and guess what they’re going to listen to!
No, not Michael W. Smith, you silly person.