Though more mainstream, TMBG is still distinctive
They Might Be Giants
Elektra EntertainmentBy J. Michael Andresen
With its latest album, They Might Be Giants ushers in the biggest change in the band's sound since its debut. Back in 1985, John Flansburgh and John Linnell borrowed the name of a bad flick from the early '70s and started producing music. John F. played guitar, John L. played keyboards, both provided vocals, and they were backed up by some studio tricks and a drum machine. Seven years and five LPs later, Flansburgh and Linnell finally scraped a full band together, complete with bass, drums, and two horns, and went touring. Studio time with the same musicians has resulted in John Henry, released in mid-September.
Although this change makes live performances much easier on the band (as John and John now have a band to back them up as opposed to unresponsive pre-recorded tracks), it changes the sound of the group quite radically. With the addition of bass and drum tracks on every song, some of the edge of the original They Might Be Giants is gone: They sound quite a bit more mainstream.
Still, the music is very identifiable as the group They Might Be Giants that we all know and love. The first single off of John Henry, "Snail Shell," has heavy drums and bass throughout, but the musical idioms of the Johns are recognizable. The new instrumentation has not kept the band from being wacky. In "A Self Called Nowhere," the verses are sung with a thick Boston accent (both Johns are from Brooklyn, N.Y.) with disappearing "R" sounds all over the place. Smack in the middle of the album, the entire band disappears for a track, ceding to guests Hudson Shad, who perform "O, Do Not Forsake Me" a capella. It's a nice treat and quite unusual with the bass singing lead throughout.
Despite the changes in the music, the lyrics of They Might Be Giants stay very much the same. "I Should Be Allowed To Think" starts "I saw the best minds of my generation / destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical / I should be allowed to glue my poster / I should be allowed to think." The next song, "Extra Savoir-Faire," starts in a similarly silly manner: "When I walk down the street, most guys look like elves / I don't mean to put them down, but they do." As usual with They Might Be Giants LPs, the complete lyrics are printed in the liner notes, which helps as you listen to the album and think, "Did they really say that?"
One of the more interesting songs pays tribute to an obscure 19th-century Belgian painter. "Meet James Ensor" encourages us to "Dig him up and shake his hand / Appreciate the man." The song is full of allusions to the life and work of the Baron James Ensor who painted bizarre works full of powerful (and often gruesome) imagery. His most famous paintings were of religious figures such as Christ or the saints, and these were often rejected as scandalous. They Might Be Giants speculates "Before there were junk stores, before there was junk / He lived with his mother and the torments of Christ." This is rather reminiscent of songs like "Mammal" from Apollo 18 where the lyrics relate the detailed physiology of mammals that sets them apart from other vertebrates. ("So the warm blood flows / With the red blood cells, lacking nuclei / Through the large four-chambered heart.") Maybe "Meet James Ensor" will do for art historians what "Mammal" did for biologists everywhere.
The cover art for the album depicts a bunch of elementary school children playing with a pickax and a skull with the word "They" drilled into its forehead. The single containing "Snail Shell" and several bonus tracks (including one titled "She Was A Hotel Detective" which bears no similarity to the "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" from their debut album) is entitled Back to Skull. Still this doesn't explain the title of the LP, which is presumably named for the legendary black American whose strength was celebrated in ballads and tall tales earlier this century. Why, you may ask? Why do they do anything? All we know is they just might be giants.
They Might Be Giants will be performing with their full band on Oct. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre.