John Linnell – State Songs

Is it strange that I’m writing about one of the two Johns in the band They Might Be Giants and his solo album when I’ve only covered one album by the band itself so far? The answer is “no”, not when we’re talking about John Linnell and his sole solo album, State Songs:

It's clear that John Linnell is the one responsible for the fact that there are no pictures of the Johns on any TMBG album

The album starts off humbly enough with a loud (one might say grating) organ instrumental! I can’t remember exactly what kind of organ it is, but it basically sounds like a circus/carnival organ playing inside of a dryer… it could be a player organ, one of those ones with the big rolls of paper with the holes cut in that play the tune automatically, he uses one in a later track. Anyway, I consider “Illinois” to be more of a test, to filter out listeners who might not “get” the album, so that if they hit stop on the album there, they will not have wasted their time listening to an album they’re not going to like. The transition from “Illinois” to “The Song Of The 50 States” then becomes all the more pleasing to true followers.

When people tell me that the songs I write are “clever”, like They Might Be Giants, I always want to correct them and say, if anything, I’m specifically ripping off John Linnell. I don’t think this is because I’m a thief or anything, my sense of humor was on the same weird side years before I started listening to TMBG, but hearing the lyrics from a profoundly musically accomplished person with the same sensibilities certainly inspired me to write out my own humor in songs, in a spirit of “It CAN be done!” Having said that, it is my fondest wish that I could write something as catchy and lyrically appealing as “The Song Of The 50 States”, which acts as an “introductory” song, almost a narrative, of what’s going to take place in the album proper:

I hear the melody, the harmony, the pounding rhythm
The ideas, notes and words
Every state, a different composition
Keeping me awake, late at night
Can’t get them out of my mind
State Songs, State Songs
I can’t wait for my favorite one

Just the “I can’t wait for my favorite one” is such an endearing line, as if he’s listening to this album with you and has a favorite that is coming up, makes my old heart glad to be a part of this listening experience.

After the instrumental introduction and the proper introduction, the album proper kicks off with a groovin’ 60’s-tacular rock tune (and one of the very few instances of Linnell playing guitar) called “West Virginia”, and immediately, with the opening line “West Virginia, there’s something I’d like you to see…”, you realize that these aren’t really songs about states. The only actual references to the states are fleeting and usually there just to serve the theme of the song:

Like I told you, you are concentric in your form
When it’s cold, you have got yourself to keep you warm

The next song, “South Carolina” only mentions the state as the location for a bicycle wreck that apparently landed the rider into a hospital stay and a cushy settlement.

Accident, accident
Lift that fork, eat that snail
Garcon summoned, have a new cocktail
Crashed my bicycle, Crashed my bicycle
In a big South Carolina wreck, I crashed my bicycle

This song is for sure one of my favorites. Aside from the usual lyrical cleverness, Linnell displays a trait in his singing not often heard with pop singers, he sings in characters. The voices he uses are usually goofy, but it adds a certain narrative quality to the song that I can’t help but dig. Added to the really bouncy piano-driven beat, it’s a song I think anyone can get behind.

Apparently the next song, “Idaho”, which features Linnell singing in his lowest possible register, is a story about a drug-induced dream John Lennon had about driving his house. Of course, for the purposes of the song, the singer is driving his house to Idaho. Of note in this song’s otherwise smooth and bassy arrangement, is the inclusion of a car alarm in the song’s bridge. I have no idea why.

After that bit of an interlude, we get back to the bouncy rock with “Montana”, another song that takes place in a hospital, only the subject of this song is a dying man who has a catharsis and realizes that “Montana was a leg”. It’s quite an inspiring song for lunatics.

A leg! Now I get it
I’ll tell the person next to me
And then haul off and die

Really I should have just made this write-up a reprint of all the lyrics in this album, and that would sum up all my favorite parts.

After the semi-instrumental dissonant accordion/violin piece “Pennsylvania”, which contains roughly the lyrics “La la la la la la la Pennsylvania”, we move on to “Utah”. The story in “Utah” apparently takes place at a job interview, and has a very “oppressive polka” feel to it, if such a thing exists outside of this song.

Then the “favorite song” spoken of earlier in the album (since the song’s melody is played after that line in “Songs Of The 50 States”), “Arkansas” comes in with a smooth trombone and pounding piano chords as Linnell sings a strange story indeed.

The designers of the Arkansas were inspired to choose a form
That was the exact dimensions and the shape of the state whose name she bore
Yes the ship was shaped like Arkansas, and the hull was formed without a flaw
Every detail had been reproduced on a scale of 1 to 1

The song proceeds to tell a story about how the ship began to sink and I guess replaced the actual state. I really like this song not only for the idea, but for the fact that I have this wonderful image in my head of Linnell playing a grand piano and singing this song while floating by on a raft as the events in the song unfold.

We then move on to “Iowa”, which is a fairly straightforward song about a witch named Iowa. Of note is the line:

And if that broom don’t fly
I’m gonna buy you a Dust Buster

…and then he flips on an actual Dust Buster. That’s pretty dern cool.

Then we have another instrumental, called “Mississippi” which is mostly centered around a bassoon (I think a bassoon anyway) working through some scales around a piano. The CD of this album has “state facts” in the liner notes, and I love their entry about “Mississippi”:

The Official State Bird of the Magnolia State is the Mockingbird, which is also the state bird of Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee. The mockingbird mimics the calls of other birds, so maybe those other states don’t realize they’re all dealing with the same bird.

We then move on to “Maine”, another song that I want to consider my favorite if it weren’t for all those other tracks. It’s apparently about someone who is evil that struggles with Maine and its coniferous green. I’m just mainly really into that sort of shanty-like chorus where one can’t help but shout “MAINE!” along with the singer. Good times.

Another oppressive song is the next track, “Oregon”, which plainly states that “Oregon is bad, stop it if you can” as it climbs the major scale. I have never been to Oregon myself, but I imagine it can’t be all THAT bad.

Then “Michigan” brings it up a few notches with a good ol’ fashioned high speed polka. The song could be about zombies (“We must eat Michigan’s brain”) and it could be about expansionism, as Linnell himself has stated, but no matter what your interpretation, the line “Oh Michigan, exemplar of unchecked replication” is among my favorite on the whole album.

We then get to my other favorite song on the album, “New Hampshire”. It’s a great song about an itchy man whose “brushes with success were just an accident” and nobody likes him for a number of legitimate reasons. The instrumentation of this song is definitely that carnival organ I mentioned earlier, which, according to Linnell, he thought would sound stately and grand, but instead had this homely sound to it that is appealing in its own way. Personally I love the song, it really is grand in a way that isn’t.

The album then closes out with an extremely short marching song called “Nevada” that was recorded against the sounds of a real parade that was apparently going on outside of the studio. The album fades out as the parade goes by and the horrible marching band plays their out-of-tune song. All in all, a surprising ending to an album full of surprises.

I really do love State Songs, as a solo album by one of two members of a band that are known for their unique sound, it really stands on its own apart from the “They Might Be Giants” sound. It doesn’t demand much of your attention, but definitely rewards those looking for some really clever ideas. Personally, I’d be thrilled if John Linnell wrote about the other 33 states (“Lousiana” is on the Montana single but not the album), but I think he’s hung his hat up on that particular project.

Well, until tomorrow!


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2 Responses

  1. Seems John Linnell recently did some singing on the new movie Coraline:

  2. That was horrifying, I ain’t gonna lie to ya.

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