By Pope Penguin
This guide--and future installments like it--is meant to provide those interested in the band's music with a helpful rundown of their full-length recorded output. Each album title is followed by a blurb which outlines any illuminating and applicable historical details as well as a general--and unabashedly subjective--overview of the album and its strengths and weaknesses. Each blurb culminates with a verdict as to whether or not the casual or first time fan should invest in it.
MIGHT BE GIANTS" (1986)
John Linnell (vocals, keyboards, accordion, horns) and John Flansburgh (vocals, guitar, glasses) met in junior high in Boston, Massachusetts and became friends in high school. The duo got an apartment together in Brooklyn and started doing gigs around New York, working on recordings in their apartment. Some of these recordings made it onto a special answering machine service they had designed called Dial-A-Song, which served as a good marketing tool for the band's music while piqueing the public interest. Fittingly enough, the Johns first performed publicly at a New York Sandinista rally in 1982 as "El Grupo de Rock 'n' Roll." In 1985, People magazine reviewed a 23 song demo tape TMBG had made and gave them a rave review, which led to this self-titled debut on Restless/Bar None Records...probably one of the most daring debuts of all time. Produced by roadie/friend/occasional third member Bill Krauss, most of the songs from the demo tape ended up on this album, either as is, remixed slightly, or, in one or two cases, re-recorded altogether. Needless to say, you really get the feeling that this album was made by two guys in their apartment, which only adds to its unique appeal and charm. The songs alternate between fully fleshed out pop songs ("Don't Let's Start," "Everything Right Is Wrong Again," "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head") and brief, random pieces ("Chess Piece Face," "Toddler Hiway") some of which are based around such oddities as skipping polka records ("Number Three") and Johnny Cash samples ("Boat Of Car"). It set the tone for their career pretty early on but also manages to be one of their most eclectic records as well. The songs are all tongue in cheek and range from polka, to country, to kiddie, to hard rock, to new wave, all done with just two guys, a guitar, some synths and a drum machine. "Don't Let's Start" gained a lot of alternative airplay back then and established TMBG as one of the most promising new groups of the late '80s. Contains what might be my second favorite TMBG song ever, the baroque synth-pop of "She's An Angel." This album goes back and forth from #2 to #3 in my ranking.
FOR STARTERS: I would highly recommend this album if you want to dive right in to the quirky, playful and sometimes childish side of TMBG.
TMBG took the humor and intensity of their first album and greatly improved upon it with this album, arguably their finest. This is the first one I ever bought--back when it came out--and remains my favorite to this day. The production is a lot tighter--the album was recorded in a real studio--and the result is a slightly more mature sounding record, with a good deal of the songs being kind of sad, especially Linnell's. "They'll Need A Crane" and "I've Got A Match," for instance, both speak of the breakdown of relationships. Though, having said that, the subject matter can occasionally be just as silly as the first record. The themes range from God to broken hearts to shoehorns to Watergate to cows who live under the sea. Musically, the style is altogether more pop/rock based, but still has tongue in cheek moments of country ("Cowtown"), jazz ("Lie Still Little Bottle") and even salsa ("The World's Address"). One song ("Shoehorn With Teeth") features nothing but a clarinet, sax, accordion and glockenspiel. This album tends to be one of the two most popular among diehard TMBG fans (the other being "Apollo 18"), but also contains what is apparently the most hated song in the band's repertoire: the Tom Waits-smokes-crack-and-gets-possessed-by-the-Residents beatnik poetry of "You'll Miss Me" (a song which I happen to love, by the way). "Ana Ng" became the alternative hit off this album (its video was what hooked me in the first place) yet it was never released as a single. It's still one of the greatest and most cohesive songs the band has ever recorded, slammed down here on one of their strongest albums. A classic.
FOR STARTERS: I can't really be objective about this album, since it's my favorite TMBG album, and also in my top ten of all time. I would obviously, therefore, recommend it to anyone, though if you're new to the world of TMBG you may want to hold off.
The album that has probably caused the greatest amount of debate amongst TMBG fans. TMBG parted ways with their old label Restless/Bar None and got signed to a major label: Elektra. With this they also dumped their producer and longtime cohort Bill Krauss in favor of producing this album themselves, with some help from Brits Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, most famous for producing quintessential UK bands like Dexy's Midnight Runners and Madness. The result is...well...something resembling a 1990 pop record. This was the first TMBG album to garner any kind of decent album sales, and resulted in their biggest "hits" to date: the radio friendly ode to a nightlite "Birdhouse In Your Soul," the ubiquitous "Particle Man" and a remake of The Four Lads' 1950s hit "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" (the latter two you may have seen on the cartoon "Tiny Toons"). Having said all this, it should be noted that "Flood" only *recently* went platinum--meaning it took *ten years* to sell only 1,000,000 copies--which should go some way towards illuminating the kind of select appeal the band has (which probably also explains TMBG's oft-used oxymoronic epithet: "America's biggest cult band"). I liked this record a lot at one point, but I think one thing that made it decline in my esteem was how apparently many people seem to think it's the only album the band made. In all honesty, it should be noted that not only is this my *least* favorite TMBG record, but also bears the unenviable distinction of being the only album containing a few songs I can't help but skip over (something I *never* do). First off is the ever popular "Particle Man". Its repetitive, halfhearted lyrics and vocals and relentless three chord dirge show Linnell in a major slump, if you ask me. Additionally, the album's introduction, the too clever for its own good "Theme From Flood," features a chorus of unknowns singing some innocuous lyrics about the "brand new record for 1990" along to the strains of a brass section. And "Women & Men"--a bit of a sea shanty about, well, women and men--just annoys me (if anything, for the title alone). This also marks the beginning of John Flansburgh's more "normal" mode of songwriting, with a few very direct pop/rock songs like "Twisting" and the overtly political "Your Racist Friend," which are both fine songs but are a huge departure for Flansburgh. With all these blemishes, "Flood" is by no means a bad record. There's the very random, muzak-y "Minimum Wage," with only one solitary line of lyrics, the dour piano sing-along "Dead"--one of the greatest TMBG songs of all time--where Linnell is reincarnated as a bag of groceries, the gorgeous but brief "Letterbox," and Linnell's classic rambling "We Want A Rock," which bemoans conformism to the strains of a somewhat sad Cajun number. The classic singalong "Whistling In The Dark" echoes the eclectic randomness of the first two albums with its bizarre lyrics and marching band beat. Flansburgh's closer, "Road Movie To Berlin," ranks among his best, with its mellow, suave swagger and crooned melody. "Flood" seems to be the essential starter kit for many TMBG newbies (if someone owns just one TMBG album, this is usually the one), but in comparison to the first two brilliant records, the whole affair just seems a bit sterile to me.
FOR STARTERS: If you are a cautious buyer, and would like to approach TMBG in a more casual, ear-friendly manner, I would heartily recommend this one, because you will almost certainly enjoy it.
TMBG's old label Restless decides to cash in on the band's newfound--and relatively minor success--and releases a compilation of all the single b-sides and remixes the band had accumulated thus far. As cynical as that sounds, the result is a great, highly diverse record, showing just how much ground TMBG had covered in their few short years on the label. All the tracks are in reverse chronological order and include short, bizarre experiments (the twisted "Mr. Ed" parody "Mr. Klaw," "Hello Radio"), weird instrumental covers ("Lady Is A Tramp"), all out polka ("The Famous Polka"), adventurous remixes ("The World's Address (Joshua Fried Mix)") and rocking '80s pop ("Don't Let's Start (single mix)," "We're The Replacements," "Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal"). There's even a track which features a rambling phone message left on Dial-A-Song by two elderly people who can't seem to figure out what number they called ("who's They May Be Giants?").
FOR STARTERS: I occasionally entertain a romantic delusion that this would be a great TMBG starter kit, because of its diversity, but looking at it objectively, it's probably intended more for the daring and/or completist and isn't quite cohesive enough to entice anyone to buy more material.
A fine return to form. TMBG's second self-produced effort (again with the help of Langer & Winstanley), this took the pop sensibilities of "Flood" and fused it with the rawness, intensity and bubbly production of "Lincoln." Named after what would have been the next Apollo shuttle mission, "Apollo 18" maintains a loose theme about space, which is more prevalent in the otherworldly production than in the actual themes of the songs themselves. (To this day, I still can't cite specific reasons why this album reminds me of space - other than the title - but it just *does*). This yielded two more singles, the perfect pop of "I Palindrome I" and the flippant rocker "The Guitar," which contained paraphrases of The Tokens' hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Other gems include the shoulda-been-a-single ode to Don Juan, "The Statue Got Me High," a song about Pavlov's dog called "Dinner Bell" (one of my top ten favorite TMBG songs), the raw punk of "Dig My Grave," and the classic, bizarre, brief spoof of Japanese sci-fi flicks, "Spider." But the crowning achievement lies in what might be my favorite all time TMBG song, "Fingertips": 23 ultra-short, unfinished ideas sewn together, with no rhyme or reason, in a medley fashion resembling a K-Tel Records commercial. Terribly bizarre...terribly effecting. There's nothing in the TMBG canon to match it. This is the other album that most TMBG fans cite as their favorite (along with "Lincoln"), and it just so happens to be my second favorite.
FOR STARTERS: It's hard for me to be objective about this album too, since it's almost as perfect as "Lincoln."
Phase II of career plan. After doing some live shows during the "Apollo 18" tour with real musicians (i.e. a live drummer, bassist and horn section), TMBG decides to incorporate the new members full time. In 1993, they release a cool four track EP of some of their full band work (three of which were cover songs), the title track being a charming cover of an old educational song "Why Does The Sun Shine?" (they'd later start doing a punk cover for their live shows). To whet fans' appetites for the new album--touted as the "full band debut"--TMBG released another EP, the excellent "Back To Skull," a few months prior to this, showcasing a new single: the funky, serpentine "Snail Shell." "John Henry" was recorded with the full band virtually live in the studio, and, as you might expect, is another of the band's controversial works (along with "Flood"). Moreover, this is the first TMBG album to rely more on guitars than synthesizers. Produced by slick producer Paul Fox (who had produced the likes of XTC, 10,000 Maniacs, Phish, The Sugarcubes and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians), "John Henry" is probably their most eclectic work since "Lincoln," featuring punk ("Stomp Box"), jazz ("Extra Savoir-Faire"), classic TMBG pop ("Destination Moon"), typically random TMBG ("Window"), and even an a cappella track ("O Do Not Forsake Me") performed by Hudson Shad. The most striking differential between this and the early material is probably the ultra-tight, Chicago-esque horn section prevalent throughout most of the tracks, from the invigorating samba "No One Knows My Plan" to the mellow ode to cults, "Dirt Bike." One of the highlights is the slow, creepy "A Self Called Nowhere," with its spiralling horn section and psychedelic backing, and the closer, the sad but poppy "The End Of The Tour," whose interpretation has been one of the most debated in TMBG's repertoire (it's apparently about a bunch of kids getting in a car crash on the way to see a concert). Having said all this, it sounds to me as if the band was just finding themselves on this record, and the results are mixed, at best. I saw a number of these tracks live before the album came out and loved them, but was disappointed after hearing the studio versions. Solid song structures and ideas are present all around, but what is lacking in my ears is the initial, quintessential TMBG spark--most prevalent on the early albums--which solidifies this as my second *least* favorite TMBG record. This recipe would be improved upon with the band's next release.
FOR STARTERS: I classify this as TMBG's most "normal" alternative rock album, and to be fair, many people find it very very good...especially newcomers. So if that sounds enticing to you, you might want to invest in it (it can be found used pretty easily). Again, though, I'd recommend it for the more cautious buyer. I knew a guy in high school who was into all punk and alternative and indie and he hated TMBG...until he heard this album.
Their sophomore effort with a full band proved to be much more adventurous and typically TMBG than its predecessor, although only featuring a paltry 13 tracks, as opposed to their normal tally of 18-20 per album. This album really came to define what is--and has continued to be--the new TMBG sound. A daring opener--the all out funk of "S-E-X-X-Y," complete with saucy horns and strings--is only a teaser for the greatness to come on the rest of the album. John Flansburgh has plead guilty to "front-loading" TMBG records with the stronger songs, and the first six tracks of "Factory Showroom" are arguably the strongest, most solid, most exciting 20 minutes of music in the entire TMBG catalogue. It's clear that "Factory Showroom" shows the Johns using the studio more like a workshop for the full band, whereas "John Henry" was more of a "live in the studio" project. The result successfully merges the young energy and ideas of TMBG with the new format. The all out rocking and ironic ode to senility, "Till My Head Falls Off," simply sounds great; the bizarre, cryptic "Exquisite Dead Guy" hearkens the first album; "Metal Detector" shows Linnell dusting off some old Moog synthesizers to add some ear candy to the mix; "Pet Name," one of Flansburgh's most heartfelt songs, plays with the slow groove of Memphis soul; a daring moment is found in "I Can Hear You," a scratchy, low-fi song recorded on a wax cylinder at the famous Edison Museum; the Christmas-y "The Bells Are Ringing" manages to fit in a sly commentary on the adherance to social cliques while bringing the album to a nice close. "Factory Showroom" shows TMBG once again in top form and full of fresh ideas, and could be a decent--although brief--starting point. This album hovers around #4 in my ranking.
FOR STARTERS: This continues the more normal rock phase of TMBG's career, but with a lot more character thrown into the mix. If you are interested in TMBG but come from the more traditional rock school of thought, I would heartily recommend this or "John Henry." (Besides, this album has a couple of blazing guitar solos on it.) In terms of sheer quality I'd obviously lean towards this one, which is the more adventurous of the two.
THE EARLIER YEARS" (1997)
A two-disc repackaging of all the Restless/Bar None material: "They Might Be Giants," "Lincoln" and all the b-sides and remixes from "Miscellaneous T," all remastered, with 20 additional never before released bonus tracks (consisting of early demos and outtakes) and an elaborate booklet featuring liner notes from John and John and complete artwork for all of the appropriate releases. The only downside is that two tracks--"Don't Let's Start" (LP mix) and "She Was A Hotel Detective" (single mix)--are inexplicably absent. (The version of "Don't Let's Start" on the "They Might Be Giants" portion of disc one is mysteriously the inferior single mix.) When this was released, I had all the Restless material but still shelled out 24 bucks just for the 20 bonus tracks, about half of which are quite good: among those are the swift acoustic jungle rocker "Weep Day" and the quintessential TMBG track "Now That I Have Everything," which should have been on the first album.
FOR STARTERS: If you've got $24-$30 and would like to accumulate the bulk of TMBG's greatness in one nice little package, I highly recommend this release.
TIRE DAMAGE" (1998)
After being dropped by Elektra Records for no apparent reason, TMBG run back to their old label Restless and release this interesting hodge podge of live material and--bizarrely enough--two studio tracks. A live album had been in the works for several years, but after recording a few gigs, the band found the live shows to be unsatisfactory for some reason and decided to release this compilation instead. About a third of this material had appeared on a full concert college radio promo called "Live! NYC" (which I own), but has been greatly remixed (and even...grrrr...edited) for this album. The amusingly abbreviated STD serves a sort of dual purpose, showcasing some of the bands' "greatest hits" as well as giving some insight into what the guys sound like in concert (or, in one case, in a hotel room). Additionally, a handful of tracks had never been released in any form before. Some of the standouts of this album include an all out, raucous swing version of "She's Actual Size," which betters the original from "Apollo 18," a great truncated version of "Istanbul" with some long, haunting organ/horn instrumental noodling at the beginning, and at long last, the "rock version" of "Why Does The Sun Shine?," one of the best songs in the TMBG live canon. The centerpiece of the album, though, lays in the ear candy pop of "Doctor Worm," which perhaps encapsulates the late 90s TMBG sound better than any other track. Tight backing, with rocking horns and a relentlessly unforgettable melody. This album also features seven hidden tracks, the "Planet of the Apes" saga, which, in short, was a series of audience participation improv sequences they did on the 96-98 tours. A lot of fans enjoy these tracks, and while I find them cute, they're not something I want to listen to over and over.
FOR STARTERS: All in all this is a nice package that *sounds* really good, but is probably geared more toward the diehard fan.
TALL WEEKEND" (1999)
Phase III of career plan. TMBG decide to bring their music into the computer age by joining up with E-music and releasing - to my knowledge - the first album of wholly original material available exclusively online (in mp3 format, no less). Consisting mainly of "Factory Showroom" outtakes, this is more of a rarities collection for diehard fans than anything else. It features a number of good songs, as well as a handful of some interesting experiments and re-recordings of songs that had previously appeared on Dial-A-Song. The highlights are Flansburgh's '60s-ish rocker "She Thinks She's Edith Head," "Certain People," a slow rocker with a maudlin melody, the '70s hard rock pastiche "Rat Patrol," a very slow version of "They Got Lost" - a live version of which had appeared on "Severe Tire Damage" - and "Reprehensible," a big band tune about immortality (which quickly became one of my favorite TMBG songs). This collection is fun to listen to, but does include one or two clunkers, namely a poor remake of a Hello The Band (an old John Flansburgh side project) track, "Lullaby To Nightmares," which ends up sounding like a bad game show theme. Not to mention it includes the brief "Token Back To Brooklyn," which had already appeared as track 0 on "Factory Showroom."
FOR STARTERS: More for the completist.
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