The Brooklyn duo of John Flansburgh (vocals/guitar) and John Linnell (vocals/accordion/saxophone/keyboards) has proven that it can effortlessly toss off erudite, informative, humorous and absurd appreciations of topics both great and small in a constantly expanding universe of musical languages. After a decade in business, however, the challenge for They Might Be Giants is to stay strong, to remain relevant, to move ahead without abandoning the core charm of their whimsical art. Weathering two major and potentially devastating developments — commercial success and the formation of a full-fledged band — the two Johns have had to fight an uphill battle to keep their place in the ’90s.
The Giants’ debut album is diabolically clever and wildly eclectic, a romp of fully realized masterpieces that could not possibly fail to entertain even the fussiest, hardest-hearted idiot. (Unfortunately, the band has attracted far too many other kinds of idiots to make attending shows a completely enjoyable experience.) Literate, accomplished, bursting with ideas, hooks, puns, dadaist nonsense and other neat tricks, They Might Be Giants is almost too good to be true. Recast from a substantially different self-released cassette, most of the nineteen tracks are brilliant.
The 12-inch (and 3-inch CD) Don’t Let’s Start EP takes a remix of a They Might Be Giants highlight and appends the mild peer fun of “We’re the Replacements,” “The Famous Polka” (uncelebrated, but deserving of recognition) and “When It Rains It Snows,” a first-cassette song omitted from the album. The title track of Hotel Detective is another LP cut, also remixed; the foot-long EP also contains three swell new songs (“Kiss Me, Son of God,” “For Science” and “Mr. Klaw”), another deleted oldie (“The Biggest One”) plus a bewildering phone conversation about the group.
The three no-big-deal newcomers that join the title tune on They’ll Need a Crane also appear on the full-length Don’t Let’s Start, a British rarities compilation issued in 1989. So do the bonus songs from the Don’t Let’s Start and Hotel Detective EPs (as well as remixes of the lead tracks) and other non-LP matter, like “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal” and an irritating instrumental rendition of “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
Lincoln maintains the Giants’ baffling level of invention while raising the musical complexity, electricity, energy level and variety. Playing mix’n’match with their instruments, idioms and influences on eighteen songs, the Giants hit a few clinkers, but also come up with such enduring gems as “Ana Ng,” “They’ll Need a Crane” and (rearranged from the EP version) “Kiss Me, Son of God.” Plucking intricate wordplay and uncommon melodies from their own private ether, the pair magically continues to explore a part of the musical continuum no one else seems able to locate.
Moving to a major label for Flood brought the Giants a vastly expanded audience as well as the predictable (and utterly undeserved) critical backlash. Another deft pogo dance on the tightrope between sense and nonsense, Flood is an avalanche of bizarre ideas juggled with the duo’s gyroscopic sense of what makes a pop tune click. With improved production resources (Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on four tracks; the rest are self-produced), the Giants sound better than ever. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” anthropomorphizes a nightlight; “Particle Man” is a science lesson set to an oompah beat; the Farfisa-rock “Twisting” mentions the dB’s and Young Fresh Fellows in lyrics about a spiteful ex-girlfriend. In a sudden and surprisingly serious turn, Flansburgh excoriates a bigoted jerk in “Your Racist Friend,” a righteous song that borrows most of its title from the Specials’ “Racist Friend.” The Birdhouse in Your Soul EP adds “Hot Cha” and “Hearing Aid” (both from Flood) as well as an amusing tune (“Ant”) about nighttime paranoia. The EP led by the album’s uproarious geopolitical lesson, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” — written, in what can only be called proto-Giants style, by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon in 1954 — also contains a droll lecture on the presidential timber of “James K. Polk,” a soul goof (“Stormy Pinkness”) and a wild intercultural hip-hop mix (by Daddy-O of Stetsasonic) that turns “Istanbul” inside out.
The prolific band’s leftovers — B-sides drawn from the vast archive of the Giants’ Dial-a-Song phone service, plus a handful of non-LP mixes — fill Miscellaneous T, which is nearly an exact replica of Don’t Let’s Start. This neat if uneven appendix to the longplaying oeuvre contains such charmers as “Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal,” “Nightgown of the Sullen Moon,” “I’ll Sink Manhattan,” “The Famous Polka” and “We’re the Replacements.”
Apollo 18 launches the group into a higher orbit, structuring degree-of-difficulty songs into intricate, ambitious arrangements and going so far as to create a crude interactive exercise, “Fingertips”: 21 discontinuous frag-rock haikus, each given its own CD track, thereby allowing for ten gazillion random-sort permutations. Otherwise, amid such typically cerebral inventions as the challenging poetic device of “I Palindrome I,” the existential dilemma of “My Evil Twin” and the noir scenario of “Turn Around,” the pair takes a goodfoot step in a new direction with “The Guitar,” a boppy funk groove that adapts “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” using guest singer Laura Cantrell to bring the familiar melody in an ethereal voice. Despite the edgy nervousness (and tinny sound) that pervades the album, the Giants show no creative flopsweat: they continue to vacuum up familiar pop idioms and recycle them with more and better ideas than they had in the first place. (The IPI EP adds a surprising dancehall reorientation of the album’s “She’s Actual Size” and two inferior new items.)
The next EP — an exercise in wry frivolity — contains John (Mr. Science) Linnell’s deadpan rendition of 1959’s instructive “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas),” an intentionally dinky cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica,” a bottom-of-the-well bass clarinet toodle through the Meat Puppets’ “Whirlpool” and the boys’ own “Spy” (later included on John Henry). Significantly, the record brings the Giants into a new phase — the early stages of assembling a full-fledged band with drummer Brian Doherty (Freedy Johnston, Silos).
Back to Skull furthers the process, making it official with Doherty and two bassists (the departing Graham Maby and the incoming Tony Maimone). The organic reorganization grants the Giants unprecedented freedom and breadth. “Snail Shell,” a preview of John Henry, flows like few tracks in the repertoire, although it sounds more like a dry run than a real song. Still, the lack of inspired songs — plus a joyless disco/lounge remake of “(She Was a) Hotel Detective” — makes this a sorry showing.
The same shortage of inspiration on John Henry can be taken as either a payback for too many generous years of brilliance, creative burnout (witness “The End of the Tour”) or the novelty of a new toy leading to creative impatience. Despite some good numbers, Flansburgh and Linnell spend too much of the album impressing themselves with previously impossible group exercises (like the madcap improvs of “Spy”) in service of thin jokes (“O, Do Not Forsake Me,” “Extra Savoir-Faire,” the Alice Cooper title pastiche of “Why Must I Be Sad?”) and watery stylistic conceits. “Meet James Ensor,” “Subliminal” and “I Should Be Allowed to Think” all score with the band’s typical high achievement standards, but too much of John Henry suffers from studio-bound weakness.
Both Flansburgh and Linnell have released EPs of otherwise unavailable material via the former’s subscription-only Hello CD club. Linnell’s contains four entries in his self-appointed Fifty State Songs project, which later erupted into an entire concept album. Flansburgh’s, done under the Mono Puff name, proved to be a warmup for full-length albums, the first of which appeared the following year. Leading a trio aided by such cool pals as guitarist Jay Sherman-Godfrey, Skeleton Key bassist Erik Sanko, actress Elena Löwensohn and vocalist Nancy Lynn Howell, Flansburgh rocks a little more than usual and doesn’t try so hard to be a smart-aleck. Yet the coffee achiever can’t help being himself, and manages to uphold the Giants’ winning spirit in such oddities as “Unsupervised, I Hit My Head,” odes to Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee (“What Bothers the Spaceman”) and a dead president (“Nixon’s the One”), and a seductively sedated rendition of Gary Glitter’s “Hello Hello I’m Back Again.” An easy line drive into the Green Monster.