The story of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the songwriting partners who make up They Might Be Giants, gives me hope. For those who haven’t heard the story, here’s the short version. The two Johns grew up in Lincoln, Mass. They shared a love of music and eventually started writing songs together. They struggled in rock clubs for a while until they were invited to play some of the avant-garde performance art clubs in the East Village of New York City. Back then it was just one guy with a guitar and another with an accordion, with various other instruments thrown in, and a tape recorder. In order to have more people, other than their friends, hear their music, they put an ad in the Village Voice, in the personals no less, for their Dial-A-Song, a simple answering machine on which they would record short snippets of songs. A demo tape they made was reviewed by a writer from People magazine and the rest is history.
What inspires me about this story is that they didn’t necessarily go out seeking to get signed, nor search for a record deal or even look for super stardom. No, merely based on their wit, their talent, and their stage presence, their odd version of stardom found them. Not to mention that since that stardom, a deal on a major label, tours, and television show theme songs, they haven’t changed a bit. And while you’ll see that in the review of their new album, The Spine on this very site, my mind and my heart still go back to my favorite album of the Johns, the album that is full of so much quirky sadness that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, Lincoln.
I remember seeing the video for “Don’t Let’s Start” on MTV. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. After the massive decadence of the eighties, here were a couple of nerdy looking guys singing really fun, poppy, and intelligent lyrics. Who else would actually mention the apostrophe in spelling out a word? Sure, we know all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but did you know about:
“D, World Destruction
O-ver and overture
N, do I need
T, need this torture?“
After becoming fascinated by the duo and noticing that they were talented, smart, and weird, I figured they wouldn’t last. Then the next year I heard an equally brilliant song called “Ana Ng.” It started with staccato guitar, almost Clash-punk style, but with a little bit of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Then I heard these words:
“Make a hole with a gun perpendicular
To the name of this town in a desk-top globe
Exit wound in a foreign nation
Showing the home of the one this was written for“
I bought the album immediately. “Ana Ng” was the first track and I nearly wore it out. What I found after that song was overwhelming. There were 17 more songs with literate lyrics and oddball music, and I loved it. The third track on the album is a little number called “Lie Still Little Bottle,” one which has become a notorious fan favorite. In the live show, Flansburgh brings out a near-ten foot stick and thumps it on the stage in rhythm. This is the song’s entire percussion, aside from audience finger snaps. When the crowd knows it might be coming, they start chanting, “Stick! Stick! Stick!” Weird? Sure. Fun? You bet your ass. It’s fairly easy to forget that the song is about possible drug abuse. This is TMBG’s gift.
“Purple Toupee” is an example of Linnell’s fascination with history. While Linnell is considered the introverted “songwriter” of the duo, Flansburgh is the showman. Various guests on the biographical documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns theorize that without Flansburgh, Linnell would still be writing hundreds upon hundreds of songs, but none of them would be heard. Anyhoo, back to “Purple Toupee.” I couldn’t think of a better lyric than:
“I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of Cuba“
“Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” is a song whose bridge I find myself humming constantly. “You’re free to come and go or talk like Kurtis Blow but there’s a pair of eyes in back of your head.” The rest of the song is extremely paranoiac, but that bridge is just quiet and peaceful, making it just a little more disturbing.
“Piece of Dirt” is a song that was somehow sadder than a Smiths or Morrissey song, but the fact that it’s played on an accordion makes it a little deceiving. Nerdy high school and college kids, the base of TMBG’s fan population, bounce along to the polka like strains, but paying attention to the words could make one cry in their Yoo-hoo. “A woman’s voice on the radio can convince you you’re in love / A woman’s voice on the telephone can convince you you’re alone.” Sob.
The sea chantey of “Mr. Me” could easily be on the soundtrack for the Spongebob Squarepants Movie. With it’s deep bass “Yo-yo-yo’s” and fake whistles, it’s a song cut from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride for being too sugary and melancholy. It also has more clever wordplay with its final line, “So take the hand of Mister Me and Mister, make him glad to swim the Mister Misty Sea and cease the Mister Mystery that Mister, made him sad.” To top that off there’s a song about how noble it was for an entire infantry to perish in a rain of pencils.
“The World’s Address” was once sung to me by a Penny Lane record clerk when I stood in line to buy Apollo 18. One of their most deceiving, the song is set to a mambo rhythm with a little bit of samba and cha-cha. It makes me wonder how many of us fans repeated the words at their shows without realizing just how devastating they were.
“I know you deceived me, couldn’t sleep last night
Now my tear stains on the wall reflect an ugly sight
I can see your secrets, no need to confess
Everyone looks naked when you know the world’s address
The world’s address
A place that’s worn
A sad pun that reflects a sadder mess“
The songs that ensue tell of a match needed to erase the smell of love everywhere, a twist of the kissing Santa Claus cliché as a lover cheats with Mr. Kringle, and then a song which predates Modest Mouse’s “Bury Me With It” and “Dance Hall” by 16 years. Listen to it and discover one of the albums that must have been in Isaac Brock’s collection.
My favorite ever They Might Be Giants song follows in “They’ll Need a Crane.” Again juxtaposing jangle-pop happiness with dour lyrics, John Linnell sings about a break-up, possibly even a divorce. More so than any other TMBG song, in my estimation at least, every lyric is meaningful, carefully written and chosen. What may seem like a silly or frivolous song is cathartic poetry. If nothing else proves the genius of the band, this song does. It can stand alone as the thesis to that particular argument. I’m hard pressed to pick a small sample of lyrics from the song. I’m tempted to write the whole thing out right here. Instead, I will just insert the bridge and urge all of you who haven’t heard the song or read the lyrics to do so now. Read it without thinking of the music behind it, it’s difficult, but illuminating.
“Don’t call me at work again no no the boss still hates me/
I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore and there’s a restaurant we should check out/ Where all the other nightmare people like to go- I mean nice people, baby wait, I didn’t mean to say nightmare.“
Lincoln features another live fan favorite in “Shoehorn with Teeth.” The live version revolves around a triangle player who plays one solitary note during the chorus. “Snowball in Hell” could almost be an early R.E.M. song if they lost the accordion. The wittiness continues with “If it wasn’t for disappointment I wouldn’t have any appointments.” I have to end the review of my favorite They Might Be Giants album with the song they end the album with, a little tableau called “Kiss Me, Son of God.” This vaudeville style song typifies the cleverness that is the two Johns, two guys I thought wouldn’t last past one song and ended up having a career now spanning seventeen years and counting. They’ve been on a major label, been dropped, then been picked up by a smaller one, but hell, that’s what happened to Wilco. What reassures me in the middle of the night is that even if they get dropped from the smaller label, or they decide that the recording and distributing of albums isn’t lucrative anymore, or that they should stop touring, they will always write songs, and there will always be a phone number in Brooklyn you can call to hear one. 718-387-6962.
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