Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: Edsel Records' They Might Be Giants Twofers


Saying that two nerdy dudes on guitar and accordion who sing ditties about night lights, President Polk, and imaginary rivalries between XTC and Adam Ant don’t sound like any pop group before them may provoke shrieks of “Duh!” However, John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants play with so many recognizable styles—country, garage rock, zydeco, psychedelia, sea chanty, reggae, new wave, soul, funk, new wave…you name it—that it’s still a shock to hear how little they sound like any artist before them. Like all truly visionary groups, plenty of pretenders would follow, but even after hearing a group like, say, Of Montreal, They Might Be Giants still sound totally individual and totally fresh.

After releasing two quirky albums on the indie Bar/None, They Might Be Giants signed up with great, big Elektra Records, which would put out their next four albums. Edsel Records, in conjunction with Rhino, is now packaging the quartet of major label releases as remastered, bonus-track appended twofers. These two double disc sets, which sound excellent, deluge the listener in nearly 100 tracks of wildly divergent styles that present many pleasures, though also a few problems.

We begin in 1990 with Flood the album that introduced non-cultists to the quirky work of They Might Be Giants with the big college radio/MTV favorite “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and the reasonably successful follow-up “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. This album is a kaleidoscope of genre pastiches and bizarre teacher’s pet lyricism (history, science, and civics lectures are all on the lesson plan). Great tracks dominate—the singles, the go-going “Twisting in the Wind”, “Particle Man”, We Want a Rock”, “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”—though They Might Be Giants’ attempts to work in African-American forms don’t really work, especially when they try to marry heavy-handed social commentary to phony funk on “Your Racist Friend”. Lounge lizard crooning over awkward reggae makes “Hearing Aid” another track that might have been better as a bonus track, particularly since Flood offers the fewest bonuses. There are only three: the neat mallet-trembling of “Ant”, “James K. Polk”, which will make another appearance a few records down the road, and the atmospheric show-closer “Stormy Pinkness”.

Despite all the styles They Might Be Giants run through over nineteen tracks of Flood, noisy guitar rock is on short order. They made up for that in 1992 with Apollo 18. Though it lacks an indelible anchor like “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, and it’s grunge-era arrangements deprive it of Flood’s sonic diversity, Apollo 18 is another terrific album. The opening track, “Dig My Grave”, is as intense as these intellectuals ever got, but the strings provide early indication that predictability still isn’t on Flansburgh and Linnell’s to do list. The single “I Palindrome I”, “My Evil Twin”, the ’50s-ish “Narrow Your Eyes”, and “See the Constellation” are other stand out rockers, though esoteric weirdness has not been left out on the porch completely. The disjointed “Spider” weaves a retro-horror vibe, and the single “The Guitar” deconstructs conventional pop, leaving shards of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” among the debris (this number also reappears in three remixes among the bonus tracks, two of which are long, lousy club mixes).

The strangest stroke of Apollo 18 is a cluster of seconds-long mini-songs called “Fingertips”. This piece was intended to provide zillions of possible listening experiences to listeners comfortable with the “shuffle” button on their CD players. In a major blunder of an otherwise well thought-out repackage, Edsel has included all 21 mini-songs of “Fingertips” as a single track, so you won’t be able to try out the shuffle-experiment with this new disc. Drag.

Having given their music a big fuzz-pedal boost on Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants toured the album with a proper band and then went into the studio with one to cut their third disc for Elektra. While rocking harder distinguished Apollo 18 from Flood and served its first-rate songs well, the group sounds a bit like they’ve rocked themselves into a corner on 1994’s John Henry. For the first time, They Might Be Giants sound like they’re trying to sound like the classic artists who’ve influenced too many other bands before them (the greasy Faces country rock of “Unrelated Thing”, the Kinks music hall of “Extra Savoir-Faire”, the Who-like rhythmic abandon of “Out of Jail”, the Brian Wilson production touches of “End of the Tour”). The more conventional music of John Henry is matched with overly polished production. The less conventional tracks sometimes gasp for inspiration. The Alice Cooper-tribute/piss-take “Why Must I Be Sad?” is a good song but listing Cooper songs for an entire verse is not one of TMBG’s cleverest brain waves. That they’d even sing about Cooper—or cover The Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica” in the same period (included among a weak crop of bonus tracks)—also indicate a lack of progressive ideas. While their jokiest ideas of the past were usually glued to listenable music, “O, Do Not Forsake Me” is not. As usual, there are still a number of really good songs—“Destination Moon”, “Thermostat”, “Subliminal”, “End of the Tour”, No One Knows My Plan”, “Out of Jail”—but John Henry is the work of a band that needs to huff some fresh air.

Cutting back on the overt weirdness and the sprawl may not have been every critic and fans’ idea of how They Might Be Giants should get their second wind, hence the unenthusiastic critical response to Factory Showroom (Allmusic.com gave it a mere two stars while The Rolling Stone Album Guide only improved on that score by half-a-star). This reaction reminds me of the near unanimous panning Guided By Voices’ similarly formula-breaking Do the Collapse received, and I think it’s nearly as unearned. While Factory Showroom is not as flawless as Do the Collapse (you read me right—it is flawless), it finds Flansburgh and Linnell serving up a series of superbly crafted pop and rock songs. “Till My Head Falls Off” and “Metal Detector” are two of their best big rock songs, and their cover of Cubs’ “New York City” is their most convincing blast of punk pop (the bonus track “Sensurround” is another top-notch rocker from this era). Oddly, the album’s most misguided track, the pale funk “S-E-X-X-Y”, was chosen as the single (it reappears in two different mixes, one of which is an interminable club one, at the end of this reissue). However, aside from that track and the equally misguided idea to muck up the otherwise good “XTC vs. Adam Ant” with pseudo-metal guitar noodling, Factory Showroom is full of good ideas and good songs worthy of reevaluation by the non-believers. Edsel’s new reissue is as good a place to get started with that as you’ll find.

Get They Might Be Giants’ Flood/Apollo 18 and John Henry/Factory Showroom twofers at Amazon.com here:
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