So we recently rented "Gigantic: a Tale of Two Johns" and I renewed my fascination slash love-hate-relationship slash disgust with the band.
The love part: what they did with a tape player, samplers, and other low-budget gear was really inspiring. I was inspired, really, watching Flans play the guitar solo on a live version of "Don't Let's Start." His anti-rock-star technique was hilarious, and he is actually a pretty decent guitarist. Decent, as in he can play as well as he needs to, but isn't trying to convince anyone he is a guitar god. It got me to pull out my acoustic guitar for the first time in several years and start toughening up my fingers again.
They Might Be Giants really did break ground for college radio, for independent acts, and probably launched a million bands. That's no small achievement. And they did it without an enormous ego presence. Watching this video I finally, after over sixteen years, figured out which one was which. That should tell you all you need to know about the way the band presents itself. Everything about the way they play, the way they perform on stage, and the way they promote their work says "we're not rock stars," while they did, in fact, become rock stars. Sort of.
They managed to produce some wonderful pop music on an absolute shoestring. I watched a little clip of the two of them performing "Lie Still, Little Bottle," with Flans playing a giant stick with a microphone on the end. The audience was in rapture at the simplicity and energy of it. Here are the lyrics. I'd put the first verse's lyrics up against just about, well, anyone's lyrics:
Lie still, little bottle, and shake my shaky handA great start... very evocative. A "little bottle" is a pill bottle, not a booze bottle. The bottle's shaking because the narrator's hand is shaking. But he still wants to shake that last pill's hand.
Black coffee's not enough for me, I need a better friend
One pill at the bottom is singing my favorite song
I know I must investigate
I hope that I can sing along
But here comes the hate part: God help them, they just can't help themselves, and succumb to an attack of cleverness:
"There's no time for metaphors," cried the little pill to meAnd I get a headache. This is cute, and smart people might enjoy arguing about whether it means anything, and all that, but ultimately it is irritating, and so the song will be remembered as a novelty song, not a serious song.
He said, "Life is a placebo masquerading as a simile."
Or will it?
The disgust part: in interviews the guys themselves admit that a lot of their lyrics were bashed out in order to get the right number of syllables, as in this bit from Don't Let's Start, which doesn't even score points for clever and weird, but instead mainly reeks of a missed opportunity to put a real lyric to a great melody:
When you are aloneSo do They Might Be Giants care about the lyrics they write or not? It seems to vary. You have to take into account songs like "Purple Toupee," which does mean something about the world of the sixties, in a rather loose way:
You are the cat, you are the phone
You are an animal
The words I'm singing now
Mean nothing more than "meow"
To an animal
Wake up and smell the cat food
In your bank account
Don't try to stop the tail
That wags the hound
I remember the year I went to campIt has always seemed to me that in Flood the Johns reached their creative peak, and produced some wonderful intelligent pop songs. "Birdhouse in Your Soul" is a great song by just about any standards, whether you look at it as pop, rock, or jazz, and so is "Triangle Man," with its deadpan polka silliness. But even Flood had its share of songs without much real substance, but at least the quality of the melody and the arrangement made up for it, and I enjoyed trying to sing some of their tongue-twister lyrics (sometimes the cleverness is enough):
I heard about some lady named Selma and some blacks
Somebody put their fingers in the President's ears
It wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's wax
I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of Cuba
Now that's all I can think of, but I'm sure there's something else
Way down inside me I can feel it coming back
If I had a pair of eyes on the back of my head for each timeI probably sang more They Might Be Giants songs in the shower than all other bands put together. Even the grim and creepy lyrics sung happy were wonderfully fun to sing, and their jazz-influenced melodic lines improved my singing:
You forgot to take out all the things you forgot to talk about when you took a bite out of my spine,
I would have a lot of eyes on me by this time wouldn't I? Wouldn't that just be fine.
Did a large procession wave theirOK. So then what do we make of their educational songs -- the history songs, their songs about painters, their songs about historic figures, and their songs about states? The problem is that while there are a few standouts. Sometimes the lyrics are good, and sometimes they are just cute. But they are for the most part just not very good songs. "Meet James Ensor" is a good, or rather a bad, example. It starts to remind me of Randy Newman writing the same lyrics to what sounds like the same music again and again.
Torches as my head fell in the basket,
And was everybody dancing on the casket?
Now it's over, I'm dead, and I haven't
Done anything that I want
Or, I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do
The fascination part: they Might Be Giants, no doubt trying to avoid the tendency to make the same album again and again, have also shown their skill in picking out interesting collaborations. The Mono Puff albums proved Flans could do fun songs without Linnell, although that material never had much replay value for me. But we will probably look back on "Here Come the ABCs" as the best of these projects. It's the best kid's video I've ever seen, period, with an extraordinary replay value and great sing-in-the-shower quality. (In fact, I wind up singing "ZYX" to my baby daughter every time I wash her hair, and she has started to sing along).
In that capacity of collaborators, drawing on they experience they gained from their self-imposed songwriting "boot camp," the famous Dial-a-Song (which I admit I've called, but only once, many years ago), TMBG developed the ability to write a song about anything. Which is, unfortunately, almost the same as being able to write a song about nothing.
Which they've proceeded to do. Many times.
Ira Glass (host of This American Life) made a comment on how they appealed a great deal to the pre-teen and young teen set, because (I can't quote him exactly, but his words were to the effect of) "it's hard to believe that anyone could be that clever."
And yes, they're very clever. But very often too clever. It's a little bit like what happened to David Byrne when he started believing his own press and forgot that he wasn't really a very good singer.
The crowning achievement in irrelevance is probably "Fingertips" from the Apollo 18 album. I've come to loathe this song. For starters, it isn't a song, but a collection of very short, jingle-like clips. Individually, they are clever; but they were put together on Apollo 18 so that when you put the album on shuffle, you would hear a lot of cute and strange little intros and outros. OK. Cute. Amusing. After you've heard them all a few times you lose interest, turn off shuffle play, and listen to the songs, with shuffle off.
Somehow, God help us, they decided that they had to perform this so-called "song" live. Which they've proceeded to do, for years now, from beginning to end. I suspect that's the point at which they crawled so completely up their own asses that they were impervious to outside opinion over whether what they were doing onstage had any entertainment value whatsoever.
So, I have to admit, I haven't listened to much recent They Might Be Giants music. I bought the re-release compilation "Then," which I am enjoying, but most of what I've heard of their work post Apollo-18 has only reinforced my frustration with the band. Today I listened to one of their podcasts that featured a version of "A Pretty Good Year." Self-indulgent and weakly humorous at best.
I hope Linnell is not playing that track on tour. I'm guessing their live show is really quite good. I'll take a bathroom break if they launch into "Fingertips." It looks like we missed their 2006 tour. Love, hate, fascination, disgust... all those things, but I'd still like one day to see the Johns play live, and get all those buttons pushed again, and be inspired as well.