They Might Be Giants are an act who have forged an utterly unique music career over thirty-odd years, from their early days as an act more cabaret than their contemporaries punk rock, via their Dial-a-Song service, sixteen studio albums, eight EPs, another eight live albums (and an additional live promo album) and ten compilations. Riding in on the wake of the first wave of what would later be known as college rock, from the very beginning TMBG’s output has been shot through with a rare sense of fun and intelligence, ensuring that they have always stood apart from their alt-rock peers.
The core of the band throughout has remained The Two Johns – the guitar-toting Flansburgh and the multi-instrumentalist Linnell having shared vocal duties down the years. For their first four studio albums, TMBG were a duo with the occasional guest musician, however by the mid 90s they had expanded to a full band, before releasing one of the first downloadable albums available by an established act by the end of the decade. The new millennium saw them continue to diversify, as they released a series of albums of music for children which paralleled their standard album releases. TMBG’s continuing willingness to creatively utilise whatever technology was available at the time has ensured that they continue to carve out their unique path through popular culture.
The Indie Years Pt.1
The Two Johns started Dial-a-Song in 1983 and it endured until 2006. A crucial element of They Might Be Giants’ career, the material they wrote for the answerphone service effectively became a stockpile of songs that they have regularly dipped in and out of through their career, and it is arguably the reason that their songwriting has continued to remain so finely honed for so long.
TMBG’s self-titled 1986 debut album was released on the fledgling Bar/None Records label and saw them taking advantage of much of what they had learned from doing Dial-a-Song up to that point. An audio kaleidoscope celebrating TMBG’s early DIY aesthetic, it sounds like a collection of well-polished demos of The Two Johns playing over drum machines and samples, which it effectively is, though kudos should go to the session guitar player who couldn’t get to the studio, so played his part down the phone to the band.
The album sees TMBG rattle through a rapid-fire 19 songs as diverse as the vaguely sinister “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”, early classics like “Don’t Let’s Start” and “(She Was A) Hotel Detective”, to the pure pop of “She’s an Angel”. The brevity of some of the tracks does mean that the album can be a slightly disorientating listen, but by the time “Rhythm Section Want Ad” screeches to an end, you’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that TMBG sounded like no other band in the mid 80s.
1988’s Lincoln was TMBG’s second offering via Bar/None Records, and benefits from just a dab more focus than their debut, as well as considerably superior artwork. For a certain TMBG fans, Lincoln remains their best work, combining as it does their signature geek rock, some of their most playful arrangements and some of their most celebrated early work.
Songs like “Ana Ng”, “Purple Toupee” and “They’ll Need a Crane” are among the finest examples of songs from an 80s college rock scene that at that point was still struggling to escape the twin shadows cast by The Violent Femmes’ debut and REM. They Might Be Giants managed to avoid such comparisons by way of their simple, yet effective, arrangements, lyrical cleverness and their willingness to embrace the margins, which ensured that Lincoln caught the attention of the more discerning listener, as songs like “Pencil Rain”, “The World’s Address” and “Shoehorn With Teeth” were simply unlike anything anyone else was releasing at the time. If you preferred a more angular rock approach, “Santa’s Beard” combined a corrosive guitar sound to a killer chorus, but perhaps the albums greatest tune was closer “Kiss Me, Son of God”, one of the smartest and most cutting songs of the 80s.
Lincoln is an album which is seemingly ageless, simply because it doesn’t sound like anything else about at the time, and like it’s predecessor, the fact it wasn’t smothered in production only helps it defy the ageing process. It certainly caught the ear of the executives at Elektra, as They Might Be Giants inked a deal and embraced the world of recording and marketing budgets.
The Elektra Years
The first fruits of TMBG’s Elektra contract was 1990’s Flood. To their fans relief, they retained the majority of what had made them such a unique proposition, with Flood retaining their playfulness and way with a melody, while enjoying an audibly noticeable increase in production budget. They even scored a hit single with the irresistible “Birdhouse of Your Soul”, which dragged Flood into the charts in its wake.
In terms of sheer international sales, Flood has proved to be the most consistent seller in the TMBG back catalogue, however it offers a hell of a lot more than just the band’s biggest hit single, as songs like “Dead”, “Particle Man”, “Your Racist Friend”, “Minimum Wage” and “Whistling in the Dark” have remained fan favourites, and their cover of The Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, is one of their most fun cover versions.
With a hit single to their credit, you couldn’t have blamed The Two Johns for capitalising on this commercial toe-hold and recording a follow up album that was a close facsimile to Flood. Instead, they declared their right to follow their creative instincts and edge away from chart-bound sounds. This was no doubt a smart move, as in the interim, grunge had gone overground, dragging American alt-rock away from the cerebral slant TMBG and towards something much more brooding, moody, and frankly, a whole lot less fun.
1992’s Apollo 18 found The Two Johns toying with people’s perceptions of an album, by encouraging the listener to utilise their CD player’s shuffle function, thus randomly sequencing the album and distributing the twenty-odd tracks that made up “Fingertips” between the album’s other tracks. Sadly, “Fingertips” was only split into individual tracks on the original North American release of Apollo 18, and subsequent releases have seen them lumped into one song, thus denying the listener the opportunity to listen to the album as intended. Despite this, Apollo 18 is laden with great songs, with the likes of “She’s Actual Size”, “Mammal” and “Dinner Bell” comparing well to TMBG standards like “I Palindrome I”, “The Statue Got Me High”, and the fantastic “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)”.
Doubtless, Elektra would have preferred a facsimile of Flood, but Apollo 18 had confirmed that TMBG were unlikely to ever lose their individuality, no matter how much their major-label paymasters may have wanted them to, however the subsequent tour had found them touring with a full band for the first time and 1994’s John Henry was their first studio album to be recorded with a band, albeit with a different line up from the one they had toured with. Whereas previously they had made great use of pre-programmed rhythm tracks, guest musicians and samples, having a band behind them allowed The Two Johns to record a much fuller sounding album, resulting in John Henry sounding much more like a standard American alt-rock rock album.
That’s not to say that TMBG abandoned everything that had made them so unique. Lyrically Flansburgh and Linnell still had their lyrical genius, unparalleled grasp of pop dynamics and sense of fun, however having a band behind them allowed them to rock harder when they felt the need. Great tunes like “Snail Shell”, “Sleeping in the Flowers” and “AKA Driver” confirmed that the fuller sound didn’t detract from the Johns’ focus. Elsewhere “Why Should I be Sad?” finds the band celebrating the 70s output of Alice Cooper, and “Meet James Ensor” did the same for a Belgian Artist.
John Henry was the album where TMBG expanded and diversified their sound, and as a result captures them at a vital stage in their musical development. While Elektra may have felt justified that dialling out some of the quirkiness had resulted in a bigger hit on the American charts, this was the closest that TMBG would ever come to a ‘mainstream’ sound.
With John Henry having expanded the TMBG sound from The Two Johns plus a small, but ever changing, supporting cast, to that of a full band, and although it was a good album, it was a touch overlong. Follow up Factory Showroom found the band tweak the full band sound slightly, so to retrace their steps to the spirit of their earlier material, without losing the new sonic layers they had acquired since.
Inevitably a difference in opinion in terms of publicity had caused the rot to set in between Elektra and TMBG, so Factory Showroom’s marketing was minimal, due to the band and record label not seeing eye to eye in terms of how they would promote the album. As a result of this, Factory Showroom is something of an overlooked corner in TMBG’s discography, though with songs like “SEXXY” and “How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”, it wasn’t short of commercial possibilities, “Exquisite Dead Guy” shows that they remained as quirky as ever, and really, how can anyone resist “Spiralling Shape”?
The Indie Years Pt. 2
After a short time licking their wounds following their split from Elektra, TMBG took a leap into the relative unknown, releasing the first downloadable album by an established act. 1999’s Long Tall Weekend may not be a classic TMBG album, as it was seemingly made up of offcuts from Factory Showroom, as well as a few other obscure tracks re-recorded for the project, but it found TMBG accurately predicting the way that music would be widely distributed in the new millennium.
Inevitably, Long Tall Weekend is one for the completist, but in truth, it’s probably their least vital studio release in terms of the music it contained, although it’s not without it’s own creaky charm.
They Might Be Giants first post-Elektra studio album in terms physical media was Mink Car. Released in 2001, it found them backed by the Band of Dans, which consisted of guitar player Miller, drummer Hickey and bass player Weinkauf. A stable backing band behind them, The Two Johns opted to use a series of studios and producers for the album, which you may assume would lead to a fragmented release, especially when you consider that its track listing varied depending on where it was released. Against the odds though, Mink Car is a strong collection of songs which hang together well as an album, and its eclecticism is one of its strengths, as it rocks out with the likes of the Cerys Matthews-assisted “Cyclops Rock”, ballads are delivered by way of “Another First Kiss”, on which a distinctly dance-pop hat is tipped in the direction of The Pet Shop Boys by way of “Man It’s So Loud In Here”, and “Boss of Me” reminds us that no one in rock music writes a catchier theme tune than TMBG. My personal favourite though is “Bangs”, the perfect song of declaring your love for a haircut.
Sure, Mink Car can sound like TMBG were still trying to make up their mind which musical direction they wanted to head, but it was also a timely reminder of just how diverse they could be, and it was sufficient confirmation that their experience with Elektra hadn’t drained them of their creativity.
A pattern which has emerged sporadically throughout TMBG’s career, is their occasional habit of releasing albums which can be best described as ‘growers’. Much like Factory Showroom, The Spine and The Else are albums which may not initially grab the listener, even after the first four or five listens.
The Spine can initially strike you as a backwards step for They Might be Giants, as it gives the impression that The Two Johns were spinning their creative wheels with an album that’s a little too close to cookie-cutter alt-rock, with only “It’s Kickin’ In” impressing with its pulse-racing power pop which blends Elvis Costello, Supergrass and Super Furry Animals. The Spine is an album which repays a modest investment of time though, as slowly but surely it subtly reveals itself to be a durable listen, with great numbers like “Prevenge” and “The World Before Later On” encouraging you to return to the album time and time again. The more time you spend listening to The Spine, the more and more you realise it unarguably deserves its place in the TMBG cannon.
The Spine is also notable for being the album which drummer Marty Beller replaced Dan Hickey. Every album since then has been recorded by the line up of The Two Johns, Beller, Miller and Weinkauf.
The Else is a different, but no less misleading, prospect. Where most They Might Be Giants albums enjoy a sympathetic production job, The Else can seem a little smothered under the thick and syrupy layers of production which Pat Dillett and The Dust Brothers glazed over it (admittedly with The Two Johns in collaboration), which causes it to sound like no other TMBG album. That’s what makes it great though, as TMBG don’t so much compromise their tunes in the face of a potent lacquer of production, but rather they meet it head on and use it to their advantage.
Like The Spine before it, The Else is an album which repays the listener’s perseverance, by being the TMBG album which offers a strikingly different sonic dynamic to all the others. While songs like “The Shadow Government” and “The Mesopotamians” would have thrived under normal conditions, others like “Careful What You Pack” and “Withered Hope” are arguably better tunes for the deep-pile production.
After a frenetic few years of They Might Be Giants recording albums of music for children, finally laying the venerable Dial-a-Song answer machine to rest, and recording a clutch of albums which didn’t sound enough like They Might Be Giants for some sections of their audience, there was a certain sense of relief that 2011’s Join Us sounded like an old-school TMBG album.
Seen as a return to form by some fans who had felt that The Two Johns had perhaps been stretching themselves too thin, Join Us kicks off with the pure power-pop of “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, and from there on in is eighteen tracks of They Might Be Giants doing what they do best, which is frankly, being They Might Be Giants.
In many ways Join Us could be seen as a return to the spirit of TMBG’s 1980s material, as it has an emphasis on home recording rather than studio portion. Of course home recording techniques had advanced significantly since the days of Lincoln, but it was a welcome return to the DIY ethic that had made their name and songs like “Celebration” and “Judy is Your Vietnam” ensured that TMBG’s scattershot diversity remained in rude health.
If Join Us was a return to the DIY aesthetic of TMBG’s eponymous debut and Lincoln, then 2013’s Nanobots saw a return to the spirit of Apollo 18, with its diverse slivers of jingles and micro-tunes scattered between the lengthier tracks. It’s also an album which benefits for being a touch darker in terms of its tonality, sit seems to brood a little more than your average TMBG album.
Nanobots is by turns touching (“Sometimes a Lonely Way” may very well be TMBG’s most heartbreaking tune), educational (“Tesla” celebrates a historical scientist who has only recently received kudos), sonically disorientating (“The Darlings of Lumberland”), and on the whole, unmistakably TMBG. Nanobots is the sound of a band approaching their music with refreshed confidence and willingness to do exactly what they want, regardless of what the rest of the industry thinks they should be doing.
After a few years of consolidating everything that attracted their fans in the first place, They Might Be Giants resurrected the Dial-a-Song service as an online entity, releasing songs weekly on their website and their YouTube feed throughout 2015. Some of the best offerings Dial-a-Song would make up Glean, an album shot through with typical brilliance which confirmed that The Two John’s are more than capable of maintaining their consistently high level of creativity for the foreseeable future. Whether they release more albums in the next few months consisting of their recent Dial-a-Song offerings has yet to be seen, but if the material they release on a weekly basis is anything to go by, it’s going to be at least the equal of the well received Glean.
Music specifically recorded for an audience of children can result in a precarious balancing act between trying to be entertaining, educational, yet not producing a sound that makes any right-thinking parent smash the music playing device to pieces. Get it wrong and you may end up releasing an album that kids love, but their parents detest, hence it will hardly ever get played.
They Might be Giants were smart in the fact that they realise that by the start of this millennium their initial audience was growing up, getting older and having kids. Now, just take a look at your music collection – just how many of those albums would you be genuinely happy for your young kids to listen to unsupervised? Sure, there are some necessary rights of passage regarding the discovery of more ‘mature’ music in your teens, but on the whole, not many of us want to be trying to explain the murky world of sex and drugs to a five year old do we?
That’s where 2002’s No! comes into its own. It’s a kids album that the parents can get some enjoyment out of too, because TMBG had pretty much mastered the fun / quirky pop song thing by this point, so when they gave their fans a viable alternative to driving around listening to Teletubbies and Bob the Builder when they drove around with their children, they should have been applauded rather than criticised.
There are some songs on No! which would have sounded at home on some of TMBGs ‘standard’ albums, such as “Where do They Make Balloons?” (a rare song penned and sung by Dan Weinkauf), “Four of Two” and “John Lee Supertaster”. Elsewhere the likes of “Fibber Island”, “In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle” (sung by Flansburgh’s partner Robin Goldwasser) and “No!” are just plain fun. And that’s the point of this album, having fun with your family – that’s something we should all do more often.
They Might Be Giants have received a mix of acclaim and criticism for their series of albums for children. Much of the criticism seems to be due to the fact that they signed a nice fat contract with Disney in which they were charged with creating a trio of albums of educational music, yet were given creative control. Looking back, it was shrewd move by The Two Johns, as the money made could be used to fund their other music and projects they were working on, thus ultimately resulting in more TMBG music for their core fans. Besides, TMBG’s sound always seemed to lend itself to fun tunes and they had a grand tradition of fact-based songs, so why the hell shouldn’t they have enjoyed a big pay-day doing just that?.
Here Come the ABC’s and Here Come the 1 2 3’s, by their very names, are not albums aimed at TMBG’s traditional audience. Instead they’re a bunch of fun songs about the alphabet and numeracy, some of them pitched at a very young audience, other’s tackling mathematical concepts (the thought of infinity would probably blow the average five year olds mind). It’s this range which is perhaps the weakness of both albums as younger children will not get much out of the more challenging mathematical concepts, whereas older children may find the pure numeracy and letter numbers to be pitched too far below their level of ability.
Taken as a standard album, Here Comes Science is tuneful, witty, informative and a hell of a lot of fun, which is no less than what you would expect from They Might Be Giants. The trouble is, it’s themes are perhaps pitched a little too high for the same kids who loved the previous pair of albums, yet it’s certainly not cool enough for kids who would be learning these subjects at school. As a result it’s always going to struggle for appeal with anyone other than those parents who feel they want to try and convince their kids that learning is fun.
As unique as their studio output has been, They Might Be Giants are not to be underestimated as a live act. The Two Johns, Beller, Miller and Weinkauf are a tightly drilled live act, and frequently feature guest horn players to flesh out their live sound, as well as The Two Johns fabric alter-egos, The Avatars of They. Flansburgh is a surprisingly fiery guitar player on stage, and Linnell pretty much sets the bar for accordion players in alt rock acts, but that’s not to underplay what the rest of the band bring to the live sound, as between them they make a joyous racket.
This joyous racket has been captured on a number of live albums, among them the unique Venue Songs, an album made up of songs dedicated to the venue they were playing in that evening. It’s an awkward concept for sure, but against the odds TMBG pull it off.
Both The Spine Hits the Road and At Large are pretty standard live albums, and their first attempt at a widely available live album, Severe Tyre Damage, would be the very definition of a filler release, were it not for the fact that it boasts a stone cold TMBG classic in the form of the studio-recorded “Dr Worm”, although the curious may also chance their ams for the opportunity to hear a seven song suite based around Planet of the Apes.
Recently TMBG have hit their stride with live releases, by generously offering live versions of their debut album and Flood as free downloads. This approach cuts through the whole ‘how to produce a live album’ conundrum by basically being well recorded ‘official bootlegs’, and correctly assuming that only the most churlish fan would criticise a live album that they got for free.
While First Album Live is slightly jarring due to the crowd noise being faded out between each song. That said, as most live albums are recorded over several notes, this is just a case of TMBG being more honest than most about this well known fact and it hardly detracts from the individual performances and hearing Marty Beller walloping his kit throughout “Rhythm Section Want Ad” is an absolute joy, as is the cameo from The Avatars of They.
From a sound perspective Flood Live in Australia is the superior offering between the two live freebies, as it’s sequenced in reverse order and given just a touch more polish. If you’re familiar with TMBG’s output, but can’t decide which live album to opt for, then this is the one to reach for.
Much like their live albums, TMBG’s compilations are a mixed bunch. Miscellaneous T, Best of the Early Years and Then: The Early Years are compilations of their pre-Elektra material and do their job well enough, while They Got Lost, Cast Your Pod to the Wind and Album Raises New and Troubling Questions are rarities collections aimed at the completist.
2002’s double CD Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants could be slightly overwhelming for the newcomer who are best pointed towards 2005’s A Users Guide to They Might Be Giants, a slickly compiled single disc compilation which is effectively a reduced-calorie distillation of the double CD. 2014’s Idlewild acts as an effective compilation of their output since 2005, but omits any music recorded for their Disney albums.
33 years into their career and with Dial-A-Song ensuring that there is new material on a weekly basis, at least for the rest of 2015, They Might Be Giants show no sign of slowing down or hitting the creative skids any time soon. They remain mind-bogglingly prolific, with many of the tunes they have written and recorded for both incarnations of Dial-A-Song not being released on any studio album. At a conservative estimate, they’ve written well over 500 different songs, which is Frank Zappa and Guided by Voices levels of output.
While They Might Be Giants have never been a band who have enjoyed eye-watering sales figures, their fans remain a dedicated bunch and such loyalty is repaid with consistently good albums released with almost metronomic regularity with good humour and a generosity of spirit rare in the music industry.