Posts Tagged ‘TMBG’

Join Us by They Might Be Giants

When first listening to Join Us, it was clear to me that this album is a step backward for They Might Be Giants. Their last album, The Else, wasn’t bad but it wasn’t their best, so this step backward did not have to be a bad thing. It could just be that they are rediscovering their roots. But did they do that, or did they just try to produce an album that was an imitation of their older stuff?

I was torn on this question. Tracks like “Old Pine Box”, and “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, are great, catchy songs. Songs like “The Lady and the Tiger” and “Canajoharie” contain wonderfully written lyrics that just beg to be dissected. Then there are songs like “Dog Walker” and” Spoiler Alert” that just fall flat.

(The song in this video starts at 3:40)

Most the album kind of falls flat, really. While I feel the content and spirit of the album is something from the days of Flood or Lincoln, the album’s power and energy falters. It’s kind of bizarre that I’m taking this stance because the last album they released, The Else, had a sound that seems overdriven and pushed into territory that didn’t flatter their song writing style. On Join Us, it’s almost the opposite. I feel like they’re holding back a bit.

This might be because of their time spent writing children’s music, but song styles that rocked in the past that included stuff like “I Palindrome I”, “Damn Good Times”, and “Twisting” are just not present. Every TMBG album has some songs that really peak the momentum. Listening to Join Us brings you close to that point, but only brings you close enough to realize that it’s missing. I feel like a lot of songs could have been turned up a notch, and I have a feeling they are played that way live, but on the albums, they fall flat.

Join Us contains some really awesome songs, and some really bizarre songs. If anything, this album does hold on to those conventions. I enjoyed listening to it more the second time because I focused more on what they were doing and not what I wanted to hear. The first half of the album seems to be more straight forward, catchy songs. The second half is a bit more creative and reminds me a lot of their first two albums. Songs like “2082” and “Protagonist” are just as perplexing as “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” and “32 Footsteps”. I didn’t get “Protagonist” at all until I read the lyrics a long with it. There are two sets of vocals in this song, basically reading a script, one being the lines and the other being the stage direction. Very cool.

So, while this album does fall flat, and seems kind of like a “lite” TMBG album, it is still fun to listen to and still something that I’m sure will make its way into my CD player again and again. For the fans, check it out. For those of you who are looking to try out the band, stick with Flood, Mink Car, Lincoln, or Apollo 18.

Advertisements

The Spine by They Might Be Giants

The Spine is one of my favorite albums by They Might Be Giants. Although No! was a wonderful album, The Spine was a welcome change and reassurance of the band’s abilities. It contains quite a few rockers and some really evolved and adult sounds.

An interesting track on the album is “Thunderbird” because of its connection to a song from Long Tall Weekend, “On Earth My Nina.” I’ll talk about that connection a little more in another article, but this “Thunderbird” is a really fun track that was written by the band years before the release of The Spine.

Some other high velocity tracks include “It’s Kicking In” and “Damn Good Times.” These two songs are two of my favorite from the band’s entire catalog, and are two of the most amazing songs to see the band perform live because of the sheer energy involved. These songs really helped reassure me as a fan that TMBG was not becoming strictly a children’s band. They would continue to write fantastic music geared toward its adult fans as well.

Really, the band says a lot with The Spine. TMBG shows us that they can still write adult music, that they can still be as catchy and witty as always, while still remaining smart and progressive. Songs like “Au Contraire” and “Excremental Film” are fun listens with strong and fascinating lyrics, while “Prevenge” and “I Can’t Hide From My Mind” carry the tradition of smart and witty subject matter wrapped in carefully written and crafted music.

I really suggest this album for a first CD. It’s just weird enough to get you ready for early stuff by the band, but it also features a more contemporary style that might make it more accessible for new fans. You can find The Spine on amazon.com used for about $3. I suggest you do.

Long Tall Weekend

Long Tall Weekend

(You are reading a review written in the month of June, 2011, which was dedicated to the band They Might Be Giants and the task of reviewing many of the bands most popular material.)

They Might Be Giants have the distinction of being the first band to release a full studio album online. This came after the fallout between the band and Elektra and may have been an attempt to move into a DIY situation for the band. Released on Emusic, the album Long Tall Weekend lead to TMBG becoming the most downloaded band ever on the internet. This continues today through their website, theymightbegiants.com, where you can download full length albums and concerts from all over the world.

 

The album as a whole is decent. Songs like Operators are Standing By and Luliby to Nightmares are great and well written, but the album as a whole feels like something that was either thrown together from moments throughout their career. Really, it doesn’t feel like a TMBG album as much as a collection like Miscellaneous T. In fact, a lot of these songs were rejected from the Factory Showroom album.

Couple that with the fact that 8 of the 15 songs were released either later or before the album, either as the exact same recording or rerecorded versions of the same song, and you might understand why going back and listening to Long Tall Weekend feels like less than what it should. “(She Think’s) She’s Edith Head” and “Older” later appear on Mink Car in rerecorded versions (I prefer the later version), and “Token Back To Brooklyn” appeared on Factory Showroom as a hidden track. Its release here may be because the song was unacceptable on some CD players. Also, the exact same recording of “Edison Museum” was later released on their children’s album No!.  

Even the song, “Maybe I Know” is a cover that they used to perform as early as their Self Titled and Lincoln era.

The other songs, such as “Rat Patrol” and “Certain People I Could Name” would be released on a compilation titled They Got Lost, named after another song taken from Long Tall Weekend. They Got Lost is a bit easier to find, at least on CD. You can still get Long Tall Weekend off of Emusic for about $5 (50 cents a song), but finding the few hard copies that were sold (mostly at shows in 1999) is a bit more difficult.

The album met pretty strong reviews and on Emusic where it was mostly downloaded it received 4 out of 5 stars. This was released right around the time I became a fan and I had no idea what was going on. These songs are mostly considered rarities to me.  Also, the album seems to have little continuity which is something that could be expected following the solid and polished Factory Showroom album.

 

On this album is “On Earth My Nina,” which is a song (“Thunderbird”) sung backward by John Linnell. I will be covering this in its own article because it’s a pretty awesome idea with pretty amazing results.

All in all, this is one of the most obscure albums the band has released due to it containing song that were mostly either rereleased later or released prior to the album. I don’t know how fondly the band looks at this album, but to me it is hardly a major release by the band. Still, it deserves some credit, as it contains some very impressive music.

You cannot find Long Tall Weekend used or new on amazon.com. You can find it at emusic.com for about $5. If I were you, I’d just buy They Got Lost used on amazon.com for $5, then buy the following tracks for 50 cents off of emusic:

  1. “Drinkin'”
  2. “Maybe I Know”
  3. Operators are Standing By”
  4. “Dark And Metric”
  5. “Counterfeit Faker”
  6. “They Got Lost”
  7. “On Earth My Nina” 

Severe Tire Damage

(Since I couldn’t find ANY tracks, other than Dr. Worm, from this album on youtube, the live videos featured here are the closest things I could find to the album)

When I bought Severe Tire Damage, I didn’t know I was buying a live CD. It was the second CD I bought by the band, and I noticed it contained a lot of hits, so I went for it. The first track, “Dr. Worm” is a studio track:

The next track, “Sever Tire Damage Theme” is also a studio track. But the rest of the album is live, taken from a number of different shows following the release of their album Factory Showroom. One of the tracks was actually recorded in a hotel room. The song is called “Meet James Ensor” and was originally on the album John Henry. This live version features an acapella solo, which is a lot of fun to listen to.

There are two tracks on this album that were unreleased prior to this album. The song “First Kiss” was slowed down greatly and became “Another First Kiss.” Also, the song “They Got Lost” would be released on their next album, Long Tall Weekend, it would also be slowed down and retooled a bit. I honestly like the live versions better.

They Might Be Giants are an amazing live band and I’m really happy I picked this up by accident when I did. It let me hear that this oddball band actually puts on a great show. After seeing the band live about 10 times now, I can say that Severe Tire Damage really does showcase the energy and entertainment of a TMBG show. Though it came out before a bunch of my favorite songs were written, and though it omits a lot of great hits from They Might Be Giants and Lincoln, it does give us some fantastic versions of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul” as well as “Till My Head Falls Off” (my favorite track on the album):

The album also features for the first time on a full CD the song “Why Does the Sunshine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).” The song, which was originally a PSA, is a cover that was released as an EP. The single contains the studio version, which is much different. The live version is fantastic, but the song would be released on their children’s album Here Comes Science! In 2009.

The last seven tracks were all written as a kind of homage to the Planet of the Apes movies. They’re pretty interesting, and kind of weird, especially since they’re not listed on the album at all. All the songs were apparently improvised, which is pretty impressive. Here’s one:

You can find Sever Tire Damage on amazon.com used for $1.25.

Factory Showroom

Factory Showroom

When I was counting down my list of “10 A+ Albums You Don’t Know About” I almost went with Factory Showroom instead of Mink Car. Factory Showroom was the last released by TMBG under the Elektra label. The band had been facing a lot of issues with the label leading up to the release of of the album and after a demo tape of album (along with a bunch of tracks which were rejected from the Showroom sessions) was accidentally released by Elektra weeks before the album appeared in stores, and after the band felt that the label didn’t do a very good job of marketing their album to the public, the two split.

John Flansburgh is on the record saying that this is his favorite effort by the band. It contains 14 tracks and is only about 45 minutes in length, making it the shortest of their albums for years to come. It contains a song, “Token Back to Brooklyn”, which can only be accessed by rewinding the first track on the CD. It shows up on your CD player as negative time as you rewind. This doesn’t work on some CD players, and if it hadn’t been for the online community of TMBG fans, I would have never heard it.

The music on this album feels like the band was trying go back to its more eclectic sound. Apollo 18 and John Henry were much more guitar driven and didn’t display a wide array of inspiration from different genres as other albums had. Previous albums had songs which reminded the listener of Caribbean sounds, southern twang, blues, and a variety of other genres. This took a backseat for a while as the band grew, but Factory Showroom brings back that aspect of their songwriting.  “Your Own Worst Enemy” really sounds like something I would expect to hear on Lincoln.  It reminds me a lot like old songs such as “Hide Away Folk Family” and “When it Rains it Snows”:

That is to say they didn’t abandon the rockers. Flansburgh really took advantage of having a second guitarist on staff for the first time with the song “XTC vs Adam Ant”:

Factory Showroom is a showcase of a bunch of very well written songs. When looking at album out of context, it could be the bands best work. They had only written one album before this with a full band, and for them to achieve such well written and complex songs as “Spiraling Shape” and “Pet Name” is a fantastic accomplishment.

An interesting track is “I Can Hear You” which was recorded at the Edison Laboratory on a wax cylinder and performed entirely acoustic. The lyrics are pretty funny when you consider the way they recorded the song, since they all have to do with speakers and phones, and people not being able to understand messages over them. Check it out:

This was the only wax-cylinder recorded track ever released on a major studio album. Here’s a quote taken from the band which I took from TMBW.net

This track was recorded at the Edison Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey on an Edison wax cylinder recorder. We performed this and other songs in front of a small audience, singing and playing acoustic instruments as loud as we could into a pair of enormous metal cones, the larger of which was perhaps twelve feet long, which fed the sound into a hundred year old non-electrical recording device created by Thomas Edison in the 1890s. The wax cylinder recorder carves a groove into a rotating tube of softened wax with a needle that is vibrating from the sound pressure collected at the small end of the cone. That is the best we can explain it. It looked very cool.

The album didn’t do well on the charts and it didn’t spawn any music videos or chart topping singles, but it is a fantastic collection of songs. I feel that by limiting the tracks on the album, and picking and choosing what songs deserved to be on the album, we’re treated to something new on a TMBG album. It has a certain flow and continuity that I really appreciate.  Although it leave you wanting more, most great albums do.

You can get Factory Showroom online for fifty cents! Do it!!!

 

John Henry

John Henry

When I got to meet the John’s at a book signing in 2005 or 2006, I can’t remember, I brought John Henry for them to sign. John Linnell told me it had been a long time since he signed it, and then they took a picture with me. The picture came out like it was taken at the center of the Earth. If you’re not sure what that looks like, it’s dark and hot.

 

This album, for a very long time, was my favorite by TMBG. It is also an album shrouded in controversy as this is the first album which featured a full band accompanying the John’s. When the album was released, it was a large issue with some fans, who would boycott and protest the band in other ways. By the time I got my hands on it, the controversy had dwindled away, and the fact this album wasn’t entirely credited to the John’s was a footnote to the music they created.

 

The fact is, by the time John Henry came about, TMBG had gone through many musical transformations. While these were small, they can definitely be heard. Just listen to the songs I posted in my review of their self-titled album and listen to some of the tracks from Apollo 18. It’s obvious that the band changed to suit their expectations, to respond to fan reactions to their music, and to suit their own ability as musicians. And looking at things today, I think John Henry is similar to Apollo 18 in many ways, and in other ways only builds on what the band has established in the past. I will say that their live performances greatly changed as you can see by the video below (a little after 2 minutes in):

 

The album charted higher than any other before or since by the band (#61) and the album boasts 20 songs, making it the longest album the band has ever produced. The music on John Henry continues to be a bit louder than what we saw on Flood and prior. The songs at times take it to a new level. Songs like “Stomp Box” sound nothing like anything we have heard from TMBG prior:

 

Still, “Snail Shell” shows us that the band did not lose their touch with bizarre and interesting lyrics. The song is about a snail thanking someone for putting it back in its shell, for example:

 

There was more controversy with the album due to a song the band called “NyQuil Driver” and ended up having to call “AKA Driver” and omitting the lyrics from the liner notes. This song is featured in the earlier video in this article.

Aside from this, the album contains songs that celebrate James Ensor, the painter from the 1800’s, and also borrows lines from the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. Also, the album explores topics of death, and love, and obsession in tracks like “Sleeping in the Flowers” and “The End of the Tour” and also has a few songs that seem to be influenced by the ideas of brainwashing and subliminal messages. This is seen in songs like the obvious “Subliminal” and like “Dirt Bike” (start this vid around 1:30 if you want to see the music happen):

 

One of my favorite songs on this album is “Destination Moon” and I’m not sure why. I guess because it’s awesome? Yes. I guess that is it:

They Might Be Giant’s did a great job with John Henry. The sound of the band was fresh for at the time and it really was a leap in a direction that I could hear in Apollo 18 and Flood. You can get John Henry for only 31 cents, used on amazon.com. I would recommend you do it. This is a great album to introduce you to the music of TMBG.

Apollo 18

Apollo 18

Apollo 18

(You are reading a review written in the month of June, 2011, which was dedicated to the band They Might Be Giants and the task of reviewing many of the bands most popular material.)

New Years Eve, around 1996, I was watching TV and this guy was talking about what bands he hoped would burst into the limelight in the coming year. He mentioned a few names, and one of those was They Might Be Giants. The seed was planted and in the year 2000, I would buy my first They Might Be Giants CD. I came across Apollo 18 at the local record store, and I couldn’t say no to one of the best album covers ever.

 

Apollo 18 is what started my love affair with TMBG and to this day is one of my all time favorite albums. It has ties to NASA and space exploration and themes thereof, and a song called “Fingertips”(tracks 17 through 37) which is a bunch of very short songs that TMBG put together to make the shuffle function of your CD player a little more entertaining. This “song” is super entertaining to watch them perform live (see below). Also included on the album are more than a handful of songs that were in a lot of ways much better than most the tracks on Flood, still the album couldn’t sustain the popularity the band has garnered with their previous album.

Apollo 18 peaked at number 99, ten lower than Lincoln and lower than any other major album of the 90’s. This could be for a number of reasons. The band received a lot of criticism from long-time fans with the tour surrounding this album, as they adopted a backing band for the tour. These fans staged boycotts and protested shows. Also, this was the first conscious attempt of the band to embrace a new style of music. While the music was still very driven by the same themes, the band lost its very 80’s sound, and it wasn’t as campy as Flood. Most of the songs are louder, more complex, and seem more grown up in this way.

 

Songs like “Minimum Wage” and “Particle Man” are all but gone on this album. The closest thing to these types of songs is “Which Describes How You’re Feeling” which was actually written in the late 80’s, and “Spider” :

Other songs on the album are more conventional in their sound, while still achieving the zany and complex lyrics as before. Songs like “I Palindrome I” and “Mammal” are perfect examples. These songs could have been played on the radio when the album was released and would have fit in until you listened to the lyrics.

The song “Narrow Your Eyes” is a favorite:

And the singles from this album, “The Statue Got Me High” and “The Guitar” are a lot of fun:

But the more I listen to the album, the more one track stands out. “See the Constillation” is an amazing song with fantastic lyrics. The band blends a lot of different themes and ideas here, as well as creates a musical arrangement that combines a lot of their previous sounds:

I would write about all their songs, but you wouldn’t want to read all that. “If I Wasn’t Shy” and “Dinner Bell” deserve their own paragraphs. As does “My Evil Twin” and “Dig My Grave.” I simply don’t have the time, and neither do you.

If you’re looking to buy an album to start off with, this is highly recommended since its near the middle of their career and showcases their more recent sound with some remnants of their 80’s style. You can find Apollo 18 at amazon.com used for about $2. Go get it.

Lincoln by They Might Be Giants

Lincoln

(You are reading a review written in the month of June, 2011, which was dedicated to the band They Might Be Giants and the task of reviewing many of the bands most popular material.)

Following the success of their self-titled album, the John’s released their second album in 1988, two years after their self-titled album’s release. Whenever I listen to this album, I feel like this is where They Might Be Giants really solidified their sound and their style. The album did well, and made it to number 89 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, received strong reviews, and spawned 3 singles. Of these singles was the song “Ana Ng” which reached number 11 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

The album makes better use of Linnell’s ability to play the accordion, which was once a large part of the band’s songs until they began writing and performing with a backing band. Today the accordion pops up on albums in a small handful of songs. While the instrument lacks the star power of the guitar or drums, it made sense for They Might Be Giants. The band, at this time, was performing as a duo, playing along with recordings they had on tapes. Aside from providing the band with a unique sound, the accordion allowed John Linnell to move around the stage more freely in comparison to the keyboard, which he could also play.

The album continues to explore topics like the working world, love and loss, politics, American and world history, and supplies the same exploration of imagery and symbols as their first album. The single “Purple Toupee” is a song from the perspective of a man who grew up in the 60’s and is trying to recall events that went on in the USA and the rest of the world at the time. What we end up with a jumbled mess of misinterpreted words and accounts of real events that happened in his lifetime. For example, instead of “Free the Chicago Seven,” he shouts “Free the Expo ’67” and he mentions “Martin X” instead of Dr. Martin Luthar King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Another song, “I’ve Got a Match” is about a failing relationship, and has some great lines. “I’ve got a match,/ your embrace and my collapse” and “Which one of us is the one that we can’t trust?/You say that I think it’s you, but I don’t agree with that” are just two examples that are sung to what could be misheard as a love song, as the song itself is very pretty and doesn’t lend itself to the harsh words of a man totally dissatisfied with his relationship.

This album is actually a little heavy on the songs about failed relationships, actually. Another great song from this album is “They’ll Need a Crane” which is about how hard it is to move on after a relationship is over, mainly because of all the work you put into making the other person happy.  It’s probably one of the saddest songs of this era for the band.

Also, there’s “Santa’s Beard” which is a pretty funny account of a man dressing up like Santa every year and flirting with his friend’s wife. I like it a lot, although it has always seemed odd that a song about Christmas is on a regular studio album. You don’t usually see that. Anyway, it reminds me of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause” for reasons that go no farther than the chorus.

This is a great album and I actually prefer it  to their first. Most people I talk to feel the same way. I think this album just displays more focused themes and for the first time really gave fans the style that TMBG would carry with them for their entire career. The album can be found for about $4 used on amazon.com, but as mentioned before, you can get this album and their first album along with a ton of cool rare tracks together on the double CD set Then: The Earlier Years for about $7.50 used on amazon.com.

They Might Be Giants (Self Titled)

The self titled album

(You are reading a review written in the month of June, 2011, which was dedicated to the band They Might Be Giants and the task of reviewing many of the bands most popular material.)

The first release by They Might Be Giants was their self titled album in 1986. John Flansburgh and John Linnell had been writing music together for a few years after moving from Lincoln, Mass.  to the same apartment building in New York City. The album got solid reviews from those who found it and soon TMBG became a staple of college radio and the New York music scene.

The self titled album really defines the style of TMBG right out of the gate. Their first album is a more abstract and experimental than their others, I feel, and as their career moved on and their sound became more defined, things began to seem less about testing sounds and ideas, and more about creating music with the experience gained from those experiements.  It contains songs about love and loss, about loneliness, and discontent, all the while providing a commentary on politics, pop culture, drugs, and the music industry. Add to that the references to movies and literature and world history, and you’ve pretty much got the lyrical styling of the band. Also, since the band slowly began to incorporate the help of other musicians until their 5th studio album when they recorded John Henry with the help of a full band, on the first album we get a very potent introduction to the song writing styles of the band’s main songwriters.

Listening to the first two albums for the first time was an experience I’ll never forget. I was sitting in my living room, listening to the music and following along online on a website that is still up today (www.tmbg.org), which supplied lyrics and interpretations of their songs. Listening to songs like “Everything Right is Wrong Again”, “Rabid Child”, and “Rhythm Section Want Ad”, while reading all of these alternate interpretations and understanding the multiple references and allusions in their songs put me right in the middle of the music.

A good TMBG song is like a treasure trove of images and symbols, and it is all layered under a style of music that is sometimes uplifting and exciting, and other times bizarre and unsettling, supplied by lyrics which are at times totally literal and at other times are very abstract and surreal. In the end, they provided a place for me to spend my geeky down time, pondering meanings and enjoying the music all the same. I think you can attribute their large following online to these same conventions of geekdom.

The album contains some classics like the singles “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”: And some other great tracks that range from the bizarre, like “Youth Culture Killed My Dog”: to the extremely bizarre “Boat of Car”:

I think the best written song from this album has to be “Rhythm Section Want Ad.” It is the definition of a great They Might Be Giants song. It explores discontent with the music industry, band marketability, and a plethora of other issues that up-and-coming bands like TMBG might have faced in the 80’s. Some of the best lines include “In a world we call out own/ there’s lots of room to roam./Plenty of time to turn mistakes into rhyme./ There’s a place for those who love their poetry,/ it’s just across from the sign that says ‘Prose Only.’” and “Hats off to the New Age hairstyles made of bones,/Hats off to the use of hats/ as megaphones./ Speak softly, drive a Sherman Tank./ Laugh hard, it’s a long way to the bank.” (Forgive me, this is the best video I could find…[wtf? right?])

I don’t think the band could have released a better album to introduce the world to their strange, intelligent style of rock music that would be their calling card for years to come. You can find this album for about $3.00 used on amazon.com, but you can get this album and their second album, Lincoln, along with a ton of cool rare tracks together on the double CD set Then: The Earlier Years for about $7.50 used on amazon.com.

Next up: Lincoln