Artist Spotlight courtesy of Pucky
I’ll keep the bio short and sweet to get to the meat of this article. They Might Be Giants are an alternative/experimental pop/rock duo formed in the early Eighties in Brooklyn, NY. Comprised of two singers/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists John Linnell and John Flansburgh, they captivated audiences in the underground rock scene with their distinctive combo of accordion, drum machine, guitar, and power-pop melodies. Their heyday came in the early 1990s as a more lighthearted counterpart to all other alt-rock groups of the time, peaking in the later ’90s after writing “Boss of Me,” the theme to the popular sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. With flagging popularity in the new millennium, the Johns reinvented themselves as children’s musicians, a fruitful second career that they explored in between full-length “adult” records for the rest of the decade.
I got into the band in freshman year of college when I decided to dial up Flood on a streaming service. I did indeed enjoy it, but I was still in the throes of gobbling up every Robert Pollard release ever made at the time so I put it on the back burner. Cut to a year and a half later, when I decide to buy Apollo 18 at Half Price Books for a piddly $4. I listened to it, loved it, and shared about it on the AV Club, where I learned that a large amount of the commentariat (including “popular kid” Dikachu) loved the band. I was inspired to listen to Lincoln a few months later, upon which point I was invited by a friend and his dad to see the band play at First Avenue in April. Beforehand, I managed to catch the group play live in a record store for Record Store Day. I got their new album Glean and was immediately addicted, seeking out all of their full-lengths from there. Today I have heard the bulk of their albums, excepting a few which I will mention. Of those that I have heard, I have attempted to rank them from worst to best. Feel free to berate me in the comments!
Albums skipped due to ignorance of subject matter:
Long Tall Weekend (download only)
Why Does the Sun Shine? EP
all children’s albums (Though I’ve heard a couple are pretty great)
The group’s 2011 release was hyped as a “return to adult music” after a lengthy stretch of children’s records. Unfortunately, while the Johns attempted to write some songs for grown-ups, they forgot to make actually great songs. The arrangements are fun if uninspired and the tunes mostly float by without making much of an impression. It’s not a total loss, though, as Join Us yielded two instant classics. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is a chiming, uplifting anthem for the righteously angry everyman kicking against “all the dicks in this dick town.” On the other hand, “When Will You Die” is a rollicking, horn-stabbed ditty railing against some unspecified despicable figure, containing a nifty breakdown of the five-piece lineup: “That’s Dan / and that’s Dan / and there’s Marty on the drums to complete the band.” Morbid yet chipper, TMBG manage to keep their ethos strong even on their dullest album.
I could have ranked this one last, but I have to give it a little slack, since it’s got a much looser feel and also it’s the band’s most recent. Unlike its predecessor, Glean, Phone Power feels more like an odds-and-sods compilation than a proper LP. It’s got a cover on its track list, as well as an alternate version of “Black Ops.” It probably shouldn’t even be on this list, and it should go alongside other compilations like They Got Lost and Then: The Earlier Years. Judged as an album, though, it’s a lot like Join Us, with a bunch of tepid tunes assisted by a couple real zingers (“Shape Shifter” and the aforementioned cover of “Bills Bills Bills”). Maybe time will reveal a new classic, but not much stuck with me the first couple times through.
Released in 2004, this record sort of just sits as a placeholder in the TMBG canon as well, coming on the heels of their popular children’s record No! Having officially fallen out with the mainstream, the Johns decided to just start dropping what they felt like and teaming up with who they wanted. Nevertheless, The Spine still feels fairly tepid and mostly throwaway, though only by TMBG standards. Like Join Us, its two strongest tracks lie at the beginning and the middle. “Experimental Film” is one of their strongest power-pop offerings ever, and its playful lyrics (“I don’t know what makes your face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends.”) make for a jovial fan favorite; having a video starring the characters from Homestar Runner is icing on the cake. Meanwhile, “Au Contraire” pits Gandhi in a game of poker against Jodie Foster and Bach, while David Bowie and FDR also get name-checked, yet the vibe is more absurd than nerdy. Also-rans include the goofier “Bastard Wants to Hit Me,” which somehow uses Auto-tune to sound paranoid, and the equally silly “Prevenge,” which feels like they’re still stuck in kid-song mode. Like the previous two on this list, there are no abject failures, but not too much else sticks.
Now this one is going to get me a lot of booing, but Factory Showroom didn’t do too much for me. It lacked the weird inspiration of Mink Car and the songcraft of John Henry, leaving generic arrangements and just-OK songs that lingered around way too long. It’s telling when the best tune on the record was a cover: “New York City” is uncharacteristically wide-eyed and chipper because it’s not a TMBG song, but rather a cover of a song by “cuddlecore” act Cub. The deeper cuts at least have a hint of the old magic to them, but some of the stylistic experiments weren’t worth taking, namely cringe-worthy opener “SEXXY.” TMBG can do funky and sassy, but something just feels wrong having two gawky guys act sexy, especially when the vampy tune is so damn flat and lifeless. Contrast it to “Snail Shell” from John Henry for an example of what it SHOULD have sounded like. In the end, though, how can we hate an album that’s got a song about “James K. Polk, the Napoleon of the stump?” You can’t. Factory Showroom may not be my favorite They Might Be Giants record, but it’s certainly worth saving.
Prolific as ever, within two years, the Johns delivered the follow-up to the slight disappointment of Join Us in the form of the promised “return to form” of Nanobots. The 2013 release by They Might Be Giants hearkened back to the classic Apollo 18 by throwing in micro-snippets of songs among the rest of the album. Though the effect wasn’t nearly as marvelous, the songlets at least showed that the duo was willing to inject some weirdness and variety into the proceedings this time around. Also, there are more memorable songs on the record to boot: opener “You’re On Fire” is as fiery as its title, complete with female backup singers. “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” rocks hard with some of the best lyrics on the disc, while “Circular Karate Chop” is a fascinating character study with garage-rock oomph. It drifts off at the end (“Too Tall Girl” is super-weak and doesn’t feel right at the end of the album) and the ballad “Sometimes a Lonely Way” is a bit too tender for its own good, but overall it’s a solid, swift record, a must-have for fans and a possible extra for casual listeners.
Released in 2006, The Else let the Johns play with some new friends in the form of the Dust Brothers. The legendary production duo helped bolster the band’s sound on a couple of tracks on this charming record, in order to distinguish it from the more staid, simple rock of The Spine. From the beta-male new-waver “I’m Impressed” to the late-career live favorite “The Mesopotamians,” it’s a playful and brash album unfettered by worries or boredom. I’ve heard criticism heaped on “Take Out the Trash,” even comparing it unfavorably to Smash Mouth (horrors!), but I’m in love with its apt application of fuzz bass, showing the band in rare “sassy” mode, even if the subject matter isn’t their strong suit. “With the Dark” is so strange that it toes the line between failure and smash hit very carefully, mashing together cowboy balladry, big-band horns, spy-movie strings, and more into three glorious minutes. “The Shadow Government” is my pick for best super-obscure TMBG track, possibly followed by the New Pornographers sound-alike (no, really) “Feign Amnesia.” “Withered Hope” throws in a Sharon Jones vocal for a uniquely odd experiment, and “Careful What You Pack” is a ballad (intended for the Coraline soundtrack) that works. Overall, it’s a seriously underrated album.
This divisive 1994 release marked a turning point for the band: much like the titular character, They Might Be Giants attempted to have man triumph over machine by switching to a full-band lineup. Unfortunately, this partially meant that the Johns were fully abandoning the streak of weirdness that accompanied their drum machines and synths in the Eighties. On the bright side, they still knew how to write great songs to compensate for the mostly vanilla rock arrangements. Lead single “Snail Shell” is as funky as two Brooklyn nerds can possibly get, “Out of Jail” is a fascinating character study, and the punchy “I Should Be Allowed to Think” quotes Ginsberg and subtly pokes fun of Rush Limbaugh while soaking in power pop bliss. “Meet James Ensor” introduced thousands of listeners to “Belgium’s famous painter,” continuing the duo’s newfound fascination with specific historical and/or scientific references that would come to fruition on Here Comes Science many years later. The highlight of the album is “Destination Moon,” a bittersweet rocker narrated by a hospital-bound patient who plots a daring and heartbreaking journey to the Moon. It’s simultaneously hilarious and tearjerking, one of TMBG’s subtle triumphs. The deeper cuts can’t quite compare to these heights, the record is a little overlong, and the one attempt at pure weirdness (“O Do Not Forsake Me”) is just grating, but John Henry is an admirable experiment that reaped some great rewards, and upon repeated listens one can see how it could become one’s favorite TMBG album.
This record means a lot more to me than it probably should, since it helped me through hard times in the recent past, but hear me out: it’s another underrated classic. I feel so much sympathy for this poor record due to the unfortunate nature of its release. Its street date was September 11th, 2001, dropping alongside such classics as Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and the original release of The Strokes’ Is This It. Unfortunately, this date became one of the blackest days in American history, and nobody much felt like buying the new album from the guys who wrote the Malcolm in the Middle theme. The band played to half-empty venues, and this potential stab at a mainstream comeback sank dead in the water, damning TMBG to pure cult status for eternity. This is totally unfair, since Mink Car was their most fun record since their classic era!
Having said that, one cannot live on “fun” alone, and I will admit that it also contains two of the most cringe-worthy terrible songs ever to sneak into a TMBG record. The first isn’t even really a “They Might Be Giants” song as we know it; “Mr. Xcitement” was composed by Elegant Too and featured vocals exclusively from Mike Doughty (ex-Soul Coughing). Simply put: it’s a rap song on a TMBG record. A terrible rap song. It’s almost so bad it’s good, and I can remember hearing it in abject trainwreck fascination the first time I spun Mink Car. It doesn’t help that immediately afterward, they flip in the opposite direction with the sappiest ballad that either John ever wrote. “Another First Kiss” is a remix of a longtime live staple (best experienced on the Severe Tire Damage live album) that sounds like an even wimpier version of every guitar-plus-beats coffeehouse crooner to be popular in the early Aughts.
Thankfully, these two duds make the rest of the album appear genius in comparison. “Man It’s So Loud In Here” simultaneously pokes fun of and celebrates nightclub life with its exuberant dance beat and a bittersweet melody. “Cyclops Rock” is the strangest breakup song ever written but it’s so catchy you won’t care what it’s about. “I’ve Got a Fang” is an old Dial-a-Song curio polished up, one of my favorite “weird” TMBG moments. Most essential to the album are two distinct meditations on time and mortality: “Hovering Sombrero” is way more affecting than a song about a floating hat has any right to be, and “Older” has a mantra-like simplicity to make you contemplate the passage of time in distinct TMBG fashion. Pitchfork, in one of their douchiest move ever, damned the album with a dismal 2.8 score, but I think an open-minded listener will find tons of fun in Mink Car.
Who would have expected one of TMBG’s strongest records ever to come out in freakin’ 2015? 30 years on from their debut, and Flansburgh and Linnell still have the goods, by which I mean the capacity to write great songs. Some context to Glean may help: in 2015, the duo resurrected their old “Dial-a-Song” service. For those not in the know, Dial-a-Song was a hotline used by the band in their earlier years to allow fans to hear new songs over the phone (“free when you call from work” was the slogan). Despite the proliferation of the internet, TMBG went back to their roots and recorded a new song every week for the whole year of 2015, allowing Dial-a-Song listeners first access to new music in glorious lo-fi. The first batch of these new songs was compiled as the new album Glean in April of that year, which was also the time which young Pucky here saw them live for the first time.
The record itself largely discards the weirdness of most of their releases, which would be a shame if they didn’t also double down on melodies and meaningful lyrics, which they do. “Good to Be Alive” is a relaxing meditation on mortality and the body by Flansburgh, apparently inspired by a surgery he underwent the year prior. “Answer” was claimed by resident AV Club TMBG expert Dikachu as “the best earnest love song written in years,” and it may be the least ironic, most charming tune Linnell has ever done. You can feel the songs were written and recorded on the fly, which means that they can disguise any undercooked melodies with exhilaration. The Johns feed us power-pop anthems like “Erase” and “Unpronounceable” alongside stylistic detours like the epic bifurcated “Music Jail” and the jazzy “Let Me Tell You About My Operation.” The surprisingly smart “AAA” goes from a children’s-album ready goof on being scared in the first verse to relationship paranoia in the second. The production is crisp and bright, their voices are ageless, and the songwriting is what you’d expect from a pair of seasoned pop veterans. It’s one of the best late-career turnarounds ever made, and I’d recommend it to the moon and back. Plus, I got my CD copy autographed by the duo:
1988 saw the release of the Johns’ sophomore album, which took the ideas from the duo’s debut and amplified the brainy/neurotic factor by orders of magnitude. Make no mistake, Lincoln still contains some top-tier unexpected pop songs, like the classic opener “Ana Ng” and the goofy Yuletide infidelity anthem “Santa’s Beard.” There seems to be a stronger focus on darkness in the lyrics and arrangements, at least compared to the first album. “Lie Still, Little Bottle” is a jazzy alcoholic’s lament, and “They’ll Need a Crane” disguises domestic turmoil and the death of love underneath a jaunty melody. Pure absurdism still abounds on larks like “Shoehorn With Teeth” and the eerie “Pencil Rain.” We’ve even got style pastiches, like the world-music nodding “Piece of Dirt,” the dissected folk of “Stand On Your Own Head,” and the Tom Waits-ian head-scratcher “You’ll Miss Me.” It’s a challenging record, for sure, but many listens in the right headspace will reveal the delights of songs like “I’ve Got A Match,” one of my recent favorites. The absolute highlight may be “Purple Toupee,” a seemingly nonsensical ditty that scrambles up Sixties historical imagery through the eyes of an overly-imaginative youngster, climaxing in an unsettling coda of “BA-BA.” Quintessential TMBG to help the brain grow.
They Might Be Giants
After dwelling on the hip ‘80s underground music scene in Brooklyn for a couple of years and establishing a fanbase through their Dial-a-Song hotline, Linnell and Flansburgh broke into the college rock scene with a striking and unique self-titled debut. The “Pink Album” contains both some of TMBG’s strongest melodies and some of its weirdest moments in equal measures, showing two young, smart, big-hearted men with something to prove. Opener “Everything Right Is Wrong Again” is so quintessentially TMBG that Weird Al Yankovic’s style parody of the band was called “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Also, who else would have the Dadaist chutzpah to sing “And now the song is over now” halfway through their first song? It only gets better with Flansburgh’s wordy sing-along “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” and the hilarious/catchy meta exercise “Number Three.” (I could write a whole paragraph on why “Number Three” is genius.) Just when you think you’ve heard the peak of the duo’s powers, Linnell comes in belting “Don’t Let’s Start,” instantly sparking a new alternative classic in the process. The remainder of the record is a delicious mélange of drum machines (“I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die”), weird samples (“Boat of Car”), bizarre lyrics (“Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes”), Beatle-esque balladry (“She’s An Angel”) and gleeful prankster exuberance. While they would eventually sand down their avant-garde edge in favor of a more conventionally nerdy tone, this 1986 gem is still utterly essential for any fan of classic college rock, and music in general.
The fourth and final of the “classic” TMBG runs signifies the end of the band’s run as a duo, and to apply a Beatles analogy, it’s essentially their Abbey Road. It’s a super-fun album, continuing to disguise mature darkness with chipper tunes and weirdness. The main highlight of the album is the sprawling “Fingertips” suite near the end, a sequence of about twenty song snippets that were intended to augment the “shuffle” feature on new CD players, but sound more majestically schizophrenic when laid end-to-end as they are on record. Any true TMBG fan has memorized all their weird lyrics, from “Please pass the milk please” to “Come on and wreck my car” to “What’s that blue thing doing here?” However, the record is a treasure trove of genius even beyond that suite. “Dig My Grave” opens the record with the heaviest punk song the Johns ever did, while the jaunty “Turn Around” keeps up the morbid lyric fascination. “Narrow Your Eyes” is yet another perfect song of doomed romance, while “See the Constellation,” the Pavlovian “Dinner Bell” and the tender “Mammal” begin the duo’s fascination with science (They were named musical ambassadors for International Space Year in 1992, as commemorated on the album packaging.) That’s not even to mention the brilliant wordplay of “I Palindrome I,” the confounding yet catchy “The Statue Got Me High,” the bizarre interlude “Spider,” the awesome jam session “The Guitar”… It’s a blast through and through. Sadly, though TMBG would continue to put out great music with remarkable consistency, they would never again reach such great heights as Apollo 18.
I mean, is there any other choice? The first four TMBG records are an opening streak unrivalled by most any other mortal band, and their third represents the peak of their powers. It’s like Sgt Pepper’s for lonely nerds in the early Nineties, and even today. From its anthemic opening fanfare through to its sweeping closer “Road Movie to Berlin,” it’s just hit after accordion-splashed hit. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is the duo’s calling card and their biggest hit, and “Particle Man” is “Yellow Submarine” for a new generation, but there’s so, SO much beyond just the hits. “Lucky Ball and Chain” is a skewed, wordy country breakup tune with real weight; “Dead” is an absurdist existential question involving regret and grocery sacks; “We Want a Rock” is pure nonsense yet it’s oddly poignant. The Johns take us to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople” atop a bed of exotic fiddle, and call out “Your Racist Friend” atop a weird heavy metal/funk/mariachi hybrid. There’s a bizarre self-titled song and a sub-minute number called “Minimum Wage” (whipcrack) and a song that namechecks the dB’s and the Young Fresh Fellows and so, so, so much more. Do yourself a favor and get this album if you do not already own it. It’s a classic of American alternative music, arguably the best album of 1990, and They Might Be Giants’ masterpiece.