Coming down from the high that was seeing my all-time favorite band live again -- this time in the tiny packed Bluebird here in Bloomington -- I realized I have never reviewed a TMBG album. Perhaps I avoided it because, well, how can you be objective with your favorite band? I decided I could handle it with their 1986 debut, because while I personally love it, I realize it has its flaws and it contains the band’s most outrageous moments. The other trick here will be keeping this review under 1000 words, because as my wife knows, I can talk endlessly about the duo. The following contains many bits of info found in the liner notes to the `97 collection called Then: The Early Years and the documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, along with un-cite-able tidbits I’ve picked up over years of obsessive fandom.
Having become friends in the mid-`70s in Lincoln, Massachusetts while working at their high school’s newspaper, John Linnell and John Flansburgh later moved to Brooklyn and officially became They Might Be Giants in late 1982. They loved their four-track and were very much a home ‘studio’ band, and they didn’t want to be limited by their live constraints of keyboard/accordion and guitar, so they performed with backing tracks including hilarious introductions (”If you hear only one song this year, there’s something terribly wrong with you!”). Their recordings were also influenced by their invention of the Dial-a-Song service, which was basically Flansburgh’s answering machine and was a way for people to hear the band while Linnell had a hand injury. The service made them crank out songs and keep them simple, and the cheap machine was jarred by long tones, giving their early work a staccato-dominated feel. Their debut was culled largely from a cassette demo which amazingly found its way to a review in the pages of People, leading to their signing with Bar/None. The additional recording and mixing were done during the graveyard shift at an NYC studio, with the tired delirium factoring into the product.
The album opens with a few of its poppiest and most ‘sensible’ numbers and then proceeds into more bizarre happenings. Opener “Everything Right Is Wrong Again” remains one of my favorite of the band’s songs, with harpsichord-like keyboards, a false ending and the world’s introduction to Linnell’s melodic genius. “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” and “Don’t Let’s Start” were the band’s first hits, with videos that both managed to get airtime on then-infant music television. As Linnell said on Gigantic of both their music style and the low budget video production, “We were getting played on MTV alongside Whitesnake and Whitney Houston... It stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Then comes “Hide Away Folk Family,” showcasing the band’s penchant for pop songs containing strange depressing images: "And sadly the cross-eyed bear’s been put to sleep behind the stairs / And his shoes are laced with irony." It also had some of their pre-Pro Tools production tricks, like achieving a weird vocal take in the bridge by blasting Flansburgh’s voice back at him in the headphones on a delay, or how they faked the backwards vocals by simply singing them that way. Side One finishes with mostly short strange tracks, including “Toddler Hiway” which could simply not be bettered by a proper studio and remained untouched from the demo version.
Side Two starts with a great example of something the Giants have come to cherish in later years: the genre exercise. These guys can write a song in any style, which adds to their lasting ability, and “(She Was a) Hotel Detective” shows they could take a high-powered swing number and twist it to their needs. Earlier, “Number Three” shows their take on boot-stomping country, with a sample of a saxophone from a 45 played at 33 1/3 rpm and skipping. Another example of their sampling would be the Johnny Cash ‘Daddy’ll sing bass’ line popping up in probably the most bizarre track of all, “Boat of Car”; it’s either that or “Chess Piece Face.” The thing about this album is that everything passes by so quickly that even the weirdest of songs don’t dwell long enough to annoy. There are 19 tracks here in roughly 45 minutes, which means most are in the 1:30-2:30 range. I love all those songs anyway, but I could see how some people might be put off.
Side Two also houses three more absolute gems from the duo, the first being “She’s an Angel,” one of the most downright beautiful tracks here with another great Linnell hook. “Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” reverses the Who’s “My Generation” sentiment in a great sing-along chorus with accordion backing, completed by all the hilarious drum machine sounds they could pilfer from these still-new devices. “Rhythm Section Want Ad,” with its toe-tapping uptempo beat, was like the band’s theme, though of course the band would go against the ‘no others need apply’ line about eight years later.
While They Might Be Giants would achieve perfection on their next three albums (in this fanboy’s opinion) and continue on producing solid albums with a full band for a 25-year-and-counting career, on their first album they had not yet found the perfect balance of their artsy side and their pop side. But they were up for trying anything and the album is oozing with ideas from their limitless imaginations, and that’s fun of it. I think it is one of the most unique debut albums of all time, and I still think no one sounded like them before or since. If all you own by the band is Flood, I highly recommend this album, and perhaps you would be best off picking up Then, which includes the amazing Lincoln and solid EP tracks and B-sides.
"Don't Let's Start" video with introduction from Gigantic