Friends and acquaintances John Linnell and John Flansburgh (The Johns) graduated to bandmates in 1982 and performed around New York City, playing guitar and accordion to a drum machine. Eventually they recorded some demos and after four years they released their first album. We take you there now...
The first time the world at large was exposed to They Might Be Giants' distinct sound. Sure, there are plenty of rarities from before, like Weep Day, but on this album conversely the DIY sound is well-crafted and expertly produced. The drum machine chugs away hypnotically and the synthesizers sound polished but not overly so. The album sounds more like new wave than their later material, especially on the first two tracks and "Don't Let's Start", but the Johns add a nice mix of folk ("Hide Away Folk Family"), funky blues ("(She Was A) Hotel Detective") and country ballad ("Alienation's for the Rich"). These detours are pretty nice for variety, but the real draw here is the pure catchiness and addictive TMBG sound of the weirdo-schizo-pop of "Rhythm Section Want Ad", "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head", and "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes". One criticism I have is that short diversions like "32 Footeps" and "Boat of Car" don't add too much but filler. "Rabid Child" and "Chess Piece Face" are welcome though for their atmosphere. The overall tone of the album is both funny and very sinister, displaying the twisted worldview of TMBG's unreliable narrators in full force. Nothing on this one is actually depressing though, just delightfully off. An absolute gem.
This album feels like more of a continuation of the previous one than any other TMBG album, I think. The difference is that it's less dark and features some truly sad songs like "Piece of Dirt", "I've Got A Match" and "They'll Need a Crane". The music already feels so much more mature, not that the band ever had any sort of problem with immaturity (unlike Ween, who work their immaturity to their great advantage). It's not any less experimental than their self-titled debut, and in fact seems weirder and less cohesive, which I choose to see as a plus, even if there aren't as many hits. "Ana Ng" is great, and although they're not really single material I love "Cowtown" and "Snowball In Hell". The different emotional cores of each song are the album's strongest asset - They Might Be Giants have never been one-note, even for a few songs in a row.
19 tracks huh? Must be a few filler songs there, right? Nope. Just as the promo promises, all these songs are fully realized and stand on their own. Except the intro, but that's fine. First off- "Birdhouse In Your Soul". There's no doubt in the minds of anyone who's heard this song that it's creators truly have something to be proud of. It's entirely cohesive yet each part is distinct - entirely like one of the symphonettes which the lyrics reference. Sure, the rest of the tracks have no chance of measuring up, but they're still worth listening to. This record's tracks have more in common and it flows very well. A lot of them have a country shuffle to them, like "Lucky Ball and Chain", "Your Racist Friend", and "They Might Be Giants". You get a sense that the band is so on top of the game here, they know exactly what they want to do and have the ability to do just that, I really think their goal here was to eliminate any filler. A hard album to stop when it's started.
Miscellaneous T (1991):
An interesting little B-Side collection which came out in between two of what are easily They Might Be Giants' greatest albums. As a kid I always thought this was just another studio album TMBG released. By that metric, it's not nearly as good as Flood or Lincoln. But as a rarities compilation, it's quite good. The mood is a lot darker and muted than previous releases. Some songs, like "Birds Fly" and "I'll Sink Manhattan" are downright creepy, which isn't my favorite sound from them but they do well nonetheless. My favorites here are "Kiss Me, Son of God" and "When It Rains It Snows" which are simply classic TMBG. It surprises me that those songs didn't make it on a formal release. Oh well. Enjoyable enough for huge fans, but nothing too amazing if you're just getting into the band.
Apollo 18 (1992):
This has been my favorite They Might Be Giants album for some time. It's still just John and John, but sounds a lot bigger already. Elvis Costello was supposed to produce it, which could've turned out well if the Johns weren't scared. The album starts out so uptempo and catchy with "Dig My Grave", "I Palindrome I", and "She's Actual Size". Each one's so different but this is just how every album should start out. But on the next three songs the Johns get a little more expressive and I have to say I love them even more. "My Evil Twin", "Mammal", and "The Statue Got Me High" have all been my favorite They Might Be Giants songs at some point. After that, the tracks just get progressively weirder, and you're along for the ride. It gets to Fingertips, 21 songs that I think are worth playing straight through a couple times. But after that you should play the album on shuffle so Fingertips songs get mixed in. That's really the way this album was made to be heard.
Oh my god, 38 tracks, and they're all so good. "Space Suit" is kind of a boring closer though. But you should just listen on shuffle anyway.
John Henry (1994):
This album signified an end of an era for those Giants That May, primarily through their hiring of drummer Brian Doherty and bassists Tony Maimone and Graham Maby as their new rhythm section. (effectively replacing their drum machine- hey remember the song from their first album, "Rhythm Section Want Ad"?) This move outraged many fans who saw the band's early sparse arrangements as more of a statement than a choice made out of necessity. In any case the band had already proven what they could do on their own and there was no real shame in becoming the sellout-by-indie-standards full band they now were. In terms of how this move affected their sound, it certainly shifted it immensely. Even the songwriting seems more geared towards these larger-sounding arrangements. There's just more heavy guitar parts and drum parts for Brian to sink his teeth into. Songs like "Unrelated Thing", "Dirt Bike", "Meet James Ensor", and "I Should Be Allowed To Think", however, still sound like some of their early work. And the last two of these are easily in my top five of classic TMBG songs, the lyrics are just top-notch outcast-rallying and historically educational! The album in general tricks you with it's first three tracks into thinking the band has changed more than it really has, with all three being slightly more traditional rockers. but by the second half of the album all that pretense is gone and the Johns are just as wacky and fun as they've always been. It's a real trip to hear them do a pastiche of distortion-heavy punk on "Stomp Box". And finally "The End of the Tour" just may be TMBG's most perfect album-closer ever. And what a tour it was! This album is definitely a peak for the band and one of their greatest efforts.
Factory Showroom (1996):
This album and I are the same age, so I may be predisposed to liking it. I also remember listening to this album a lot some autumn when I was 12, more so than any other TMBG album. They added second guitarist Eric Schermerhorn on this one and the arrangements got more than twice as big with tons of brass and strings. The leaps between the sparse and huge arrangements on this album are really shocking, like on "Exquisite Dead Guy" and "Metal Detector", two songs with very quiet and minimal verses and huge driving choruses that sound almost like different songs. I always kind of resented "New York City" because it was a somewhat straightforward lovesong and when I first heard it I couldn't be less interested in those themes. I liked TMBG's lyrics for their astonishingly cleverness, like on "Your Own Worst Enemy" which truly hits the sweet spot of wit and emotionality, you can chuckle and cry at the same time here. And "James K. Polk" is a great history lesson follow-up to "Meet James Ensor", though about two very different figures (which nonetheless share some things in common). "Spiraling Shape" is a pretty incredible song that almost reaches the heights of "Birdhouse in your Soul" in terms of catchy sonic innovation. The songs here are a bit longer as there are only 13 of them, the lowest number for a TMBG album so far. This gives each one time to reach it's full potential if necessary, and each song truly hits some great heights. This Might Be an Excellent Album.
Severe Tire Damage (1998):
Technically a live album and a great showcase of TMBG's initial years as a full-fledged five-piece touring band, I'm covering this album too because 3 new studio songs were recorded for it, namely "Doctor Worm", which is a can't-miss for any music fan. In my experience "Doctor Worm" is second only to "Istanbul" in it's mass appeal for casual listeners, which has made me resent it a little at times despite it being a great song. It's just so fun and upbeat, and I can't fault it for that. It also conjures a mental image of a little worm with a stethoscope, which is lovely. There's also "Severe Tire Damage", the title track which is a decent little instrumental intro. "About Me" is a great little villain song disguised a love song and very short. So yeah, Dr. Worm is great. I can't say anything about the live tracks because AAA is about STUDIO albums, man! But yeah they're good too. Bye.
Long Tall Weekend (1999):
The first online-exclusive album I've ever heard of, the marketing strategy took advantage of their release from their Elektra contract to do some independent distribution. However, whether it was Elektra or all the touring or just the fact that they waited three years instead of two to do a new full studio album this time, I find this album lacking. Maybe it's that almost all the tracks existed previously on Dial-A-Song (TMBG's call-service that provided fans with a constant stream of new songs for many years) or in other forms. It's just so much worse in terms of cohesiveness and songwriting. Some of the arrangments elavate some of the weaker songs a bit but stuff like "Drinkin'", "Edith Head", "They Got Lost", and "Maybe I Know" are just not very inspired. Stuff like "Rat Patrol" and "Counterfeit Faker" are kinda funny and good as dial-a-songs but don't stand up to the band's earlier work. They Might Be Giants just seem a little lazy here, by re-recording these older songs. Sure, this isn't too bad an album in isolation, but we know that the band is capable of so much more. On the other hand, "Older" and "Reprehensible" are great instant-classics. They just needed more tracks that could measure up to that high bar.
Mink Car (2001):
They Might Be Giants' first entry in the 21st century was an explosive one indeed. The first three tracks already kind of give the game away: "Bangs" is fun and silly pop, "Cyclops Rock" is all that the title implies, and "Man, It's so Loud in Here" introduces dance music as a new genre that the band can play with, and basically nail on it's head. The band plays more with those three genres on the fourth through sixth tracks as well, just in a different order. "Mr. Xcitement" has a rap, another TMBG first (unfortunately it's not Flansy himself rapping). Then on "Hovering Sombrero" we get a return to classic-TMBG songwriting from Linnell. Yep, he's still clever as all hell when he wants to be, and a good storyteller to boot. Every damn song here is so good. There really isn't another album like it, only Ween was this eclectic in the 2000s, when there was all this new electronic music burgeoning about for TMBG to combine with classic rock into this catchy artistic piece. Even Ween couldn't do that (and everyone knows I love Ween). There's a new version of "Older", which makes Long Tall Weekend even more irrelevant. Plus, I even like the goofy boston-accented "Wicked Little Critta", which probably has aged the worst of any track here. But goddamn it, TMBG isn't about playing it safe! This is all that anybody could have hoped for from an early-2000s TMBG album.
Hey, did you know this band makes children's music? They do! At least they have since 2002, when they released this out of nowhere (although they had done lots of educational music already). The album isn't at all isolating for adults however, because TMBG doesn't feel the need to hit kids over the head with a clear-cut message on every damn song. A lot of songwriters could take some cues from this approach. Having said all that, this is still not in the same ballpark as the band's "adult" albums. Even though it's generally about as experimental as ever, the lyrics are obviously less clever. But there's a lot of great tracks here, like "Four of Two", "No!", and "Where Do They Make Balloons?" all of which have a certain simple wit to them. I'm not in love with the rest of the album but it's definitely worth a lesson and a lot of fun for kids.
The Spine (2004):
This is the first They Might Be Giants album I ever listened to, and so of course it holds a special place in my heart. "Experimental Film, the opener, had a music video made for it by Mark and Mike Chapman of homestarrunner.com, featuring the characters from that site. It was through THAT video that I first discovered the band. Thank god those guys had great musical taste, or I might not have been introduced to the band at that pivotal time in my development. That particular song happens to be really great too, with perfect harmonies and guitar/synth riffs. The album on a whole is a lot more melancholy and a return to a more acoustic and slow sound after the bombastic Mink Car. However there are still some harder songs, like "Prevenge" and "Thunderbird", as well as the electronic ballad "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" (What a title!) These songs are pretty great too, and the whole album has a great mix of slow melancholy tunes and barn-burners like "Damn Good Times". Damn this is a Good Album!
Here Come the ABCs (2005):
The second They Might Be Giants children's album, and the first in there "Here Comes..." trilogy. All three in that trilogy are more focused than No! was, with this one being very heavy on piano in every single song, with some brass mixed in. This makes the album somewhat more boring in some ways. I find "Alphabet of Nations" and "Q U" incredibly catchy, but overall the sound is just a little too 60s/70s soft rock for me and generally too sleepy. I think I like Long Tall Weekend more, honestly. It's just not entirely for me.
This is it, boys. Is this TMBG's best album? God, I don't know! I know I'm perhaps being overly positive here, but almost every TMBG album is pure gold and there's no getting around that. The best part is how different they all are too. While Mink Car was certainly more eclectic and The Spine was more positive and fun, The Else is a dark and deep album that perfectly reflects the mood of the time amongst alternative scene kids. The sound on "I'm Impressed" instantly grabs your attention with it's subdued but raw guitars and vocals, which is just so evocative and thought-provoking. There are so many genres this band tackles that another band might do better, but no one else would ever do it like this. After an excellent diversion the band brings the distorted guitars back and the anti-authoritarian themes on several tracks: "Climbing the Walls" and "The Shadow Government". Some fringe-group fans have speculated that, based on the cover and it's contents, this album is a response to the war in Afghanistan. Well, the songs I've mentioned would certainly lend some credence to that. There's also "With the Dark" and "Careful What You Pack", which fit in with that idea somewhat, though the second of these was actually written for the film Coraline, which currently ranks No. 21 on my list of all-time favorite movies. It's a shame it wasn't used, because it's a chilling, haunting song that would've fit perfectly. It manages to be menacing even with mostly major songs. It's the shift into the minor ones that really lets the terror set in. Overall, every song has some kind of musical or lyrical (or both) dark and depressing elements. Which certainly isn't unheard of on a TMBG song, but this song really doesn't let up. Which is totally perfect if you're in the mood for it. The only song that I don't find at all depressing is the closer, The Mesopotamians, which is a nerd anthem among TMBG nerd anthems. The Else is something else, I tell you what.
Here Come the 123s (2008):
This band seems to have developed a habit of releasing children's albums in the years after every other adult one. How specific. Well, this second in a trilogy is a little more interesting to me than the last, as it's significantly more eclectic than the last. "Number Two" is a bit of a schoolhouse rock number, and pretty fun. I hadn't realized until I got into them recently, but the song "Zeroes" is pretty clearly a homage to the band The Free Design, who were never very popular. Man, this band's influences are so specific and obscure that I'm sure there are dozens that I still haven't picked up on yet. Dozens! In all my years of research! My god. Seriously though, these songs are all a lot of fun, and this is my second favorite TMBG children's album. Go buy a copy, or just stream it ya know cuz that's what's you're gonna do.
Here Comes Science (2009):
aaand they broke their habit. Okay, this is my favorite of their children's albums. It even won a grammy and I remember watching the entirety of the Grammys just for them to not broadcast that particular award. God dammit. This is a pretty great children's album, and certainly deserved it. There's a lot of great spacey synths and stuff here and the subject matter is advanced enough such that I was still young enough that some of it was new information to me at the time. In fact, "Meet the Elements" (great track) was used by my science teacher for our unit on elements shortly after this album's release (I got way too excited). The music just fits each song's theme so well, the explanatory concept works perfectly for the band and the subject matter. We also get a new version of "Why Does The Sun Shine", a live staple. This album has some of the band's absolute catchiest material, I can still remember my little sister singing "Why Does the Sun Shine" and "Roy G. Biv" incessantly. My favorite album of children's music ever, no doubt.
Join Us (2011):
The first adult's album they released after I discovered the band, and the tour promoting it was the first time I saw them live. It's hard to say anything bad about these albums when I have such personal connections to each one. Damn. Well I will say this one isn't quite as great as The Else, though it comes close and maybe even outdoes The Spine. I see the band's "new sound" getting cemented a bit on this album. They're still wildly experimental now but not quite as much musically as on Mink Car and not as much lyrically as on Flood or Lincoln or The Else. Which is fine, I'm sure that degree of experimentation in all respects would get tiring to listen to. I hear a certain consistency on this one and a lot of it brings back memories of those early recordings, like on "Judy is your Vietnam" and "Three Might Be Duende". This album is just such a good time, featuring even such songs as "Celebration" and "Can't Keep Johnny Down". I really feel it was what I needed in 2011. I'm almost crying thinking about my first time listening to this. But don't start with this album if you've never heard the band before, work up to it.
Here we can hear how the band's sound has "cemented", as I referred to it. Again, I'm not saying the band doesn't experiment anymore. They're just a little less unpredictable. But hell, some of their own fans got mad as hell when they got really experimental around '94-'01. So it's better in the long run to do what you know you can do damn well, while still keeping it interesting. And they really do that here, blending electronic synths and real instruments to the point where it's just all part of the musical landscape and no longer do these seem like disparate elements. This album has 25 tracks, some of which are quite short, a la Apollo 18. So in short it's quite a contest between this and Join Us, though I think Join Us wins by a hair.
My favorite since The Else. Wow, we're almost up to CURRENT YEAR, and I'm still this positive about the band's releases? Do They Might Be Giants ever get bad, or what? The answer is no. I like the opener "Erase", and tried to make an animated music video for it at one point. My favorite track, though, is "Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2", which is like nothing They Might Be Giants has released before. Its TMBG mixed with jazz and prog, is the closest I can come to describing it. With kind of a middle eastern flair. and then Part 2 is just the perfect culmination of that mini-musical. "Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel" is my second favorite, a perfect little ritzy ditzy tune. Ah, breathe it in. That's good They Might Be Giants right there.
Don't get me wrong, Here Comes Science is still my favorite of the children's albums. But this album is great for the way it reverts to the precedent set with No! and hits you with great songs that are kid-oriented but necessarily "educational". Honestly, only "Oh You Did", "And Mom and Kid", "Elephants", and "So Crazy for Books" sound explicitly like kid's songs (and even then they're still TMBG so they're far better than most kid's songs). The rest really wouldn't be out of place on any other TMBG album. Speaking of "And Mom and Kid", it manages to delve into non-traditional family structures in a way that's not over-explaining and actually quite catchy. "I Haven't Seen You in Forever" and "Mrs. Wheelyke" employ interesting and exciting lyrical structures, and the latter tune is an incredible earworm and probably my highlight from this record. This collection of songs is undoubtedly even more eclectic and fun than most of the Here Comes... releases.
Phone Power (2016):
Well, let's see. This album, much like Long Tall Weekend, is composed entirely of tracks from the Dial-A-Song service. Long Tall Weekend wasn't my favorite so I had some misgivings going into this one. And they weren't completely unfounded, as I consider this album a few steps below Join Us, Nanobots, or even I Like Fun. But this is still a very solid album, even if tracks like "Say Nice Things About Detroit", "I Am Alone", and "Got Getting up so Down" still inherit some of the Dial-A-Song problems of being simple style experiments that never get fully fleshed out and feel uninspired. Most tracks, and especially "To a Forest" and "I'll Be Haunting You" feel fully realized, and stand strong among many of the better TMBG releases. Sure, there's nothing here that reaches the heights of almost every track on The Else or Apollo 18, but some of it is about on the level of Glean, it's just unfortunate that a lot of it might just be filler.
I Like Fun (2018):
Give this band 2 years, and what do they come up with? Why, 15 immensely listenable songs of course! I like fun, and let me tell you, I Like Fun is fun! Sure, "Let's Get This Over With" isn't the most joy-inspiring title you've ever read, but let's be honest- it's about the most excitement for anything you can manage, some days. Seriously, though- as much as the album's title might give you the impression that this band has finally abandoned some of their more depressing lyrics, the truth is quite the opposite. "The Bright Side" actually makes the case that the bright side is "just a white lie" that's "blinding our eyes". There's no bright side, and the protagonist seems to be dealing with a tragedy. Even the title track "I Like Fun" can easily be interpreted as describing someone who is denying themselves the medication that they need to function. The truth is that much of this album appears to be about the busy, messy, over-saturated lives we all lead now, with "Push Back the Hands" even expressing a desire to go back to a simpler time. "The Greatest", with so few words, manages to paint a very minimalist portrait of a common TMBG protagonist- vengeful and angry but endlessly self-doubting and unable to accept positivity. The minimalist production makes it a great song for lonely fans to play in the dark. Luckily there are some nice positive lyrics on "Lake Monsters", because I feel that's what we need from music nowadays, even if TMBG shouldn't necessarily have to be providing it. Thank god they know not to dish it out all the time, I love this dark stuff.
My Murdered Remains (2018):
Well, yes, this one is Dial-A-Song material again, but at this point that's kind of just the way this band comes up with new songs. And hey, this is a good one. I remember the releases of "The Communists Have the Music" and "The Neck Rolls Aren't Working" (wordy titles eh?) like they were just yesterday, because they were just last year. Those songs are tight and speedy, in a way that implies TMBG have caught their 21st wind with a new burst of energy. I love "Selectionist" too, it sounds like early 2000s alternative electronica. This whole album is so clean that sometimes it's a little robotic, which might be it's main flaw. The band has just perfected their process so much that, even though it hasn't made them less inventive it does give their music a certain ultra-advanced-AI-creating-the-perfect-alt-rock-tunes quality. There's also a bonus disc called More Murdered Remains which is pretty good too. Corn Mo is a guest vocalist on one track. They also cover Jonathon Richman's "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" and make it sound more like a track they'd play at a lesbian bar (depends on the bar though). Good. Album.
The Escape Team (2018):
They released this one simultaneously with My Murdered Remains, perhaps intentionally creating a rivalry between fans of each album. This one was made in collaboration with visual artist David Cowles, who created the "We're the Mesopotamians" music video. It's the first adult-oriented concept album by this band where they stuck to the concept as much as they do on the "Here Comes..." albums. Each track concerns a different member of the titular team, and the style of the songs inform our ideas of the characters as much as the lyrics or the art do. For instance, "Chip the CHiP" is a somewhat messy and sludgy song, like that disgusting frog guy is. "Dunkin Of Course Of Course" incorporates Dunkin's dribbling into the beat. Also, "Re-PETE Offener" sounds as sinister and yet pathetic in the refrain as Pete. Many of the characters show up in each other's music videos, which is also cool. It is perhaps a direct result of this album's concept that it is significantly sillier than most of TMBG's adult-oriented work, which is by no means a bad thing but sometimes stops me from giving this one a play. The exception is "The Poisounousness", sung by Robin Goldwasser which only briefly mentions an Escape Team member and is a beautiful electronic tune that ends the album unexpectedly but wonderfully. Not a sequel to My Murdered Remains, but an equal.
Thank you so much for taking the time to skim over my opinions about these 20-some-odd albums by one of my favorite groups, and I hope to write some more thoughts for you to read soon.