They Might Be Giants is playing a show on the last Sunday of every month of 2015 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. Marisa and I have tickets to all of the Williamsburg shows that have been put on sale so far, and we will be reporting on each show. Here is the third installment of our TMBG musical biography, arriving just after the next show. We’ve been busy.

They Might Be Giants at the Music Hall of Williamsburg: 3/29/15

1. Dead
This show is a They Might Be Giants Flood show. I do not, even as a TMBG obsessive, disdain Flood, their most popular album. I find, in fact, that a lot of TMBG obsessives seem to love Flood just as not as, if not more than, their less popular albums. I can’t front; it was the first TMBG album I heard. I bought a used copy on cassette at a record store that is so far away from still existing, I could not even tell you. It was called Probe and a fair amount of their stock at the time was cassettes — used cassettes and also some bootlegs. I went to Probe because I was going to London with my family and I wanted to buy a new (used) tape for my Walkman to listen to on the flight. The vague idea was to get something British, but Flood was there and I’d heard about TMBG from Tiny Toons and, I think, my friend Jeff, so I got that instead. I still remember listening to Flood in several different airports on that trip. “Dead” is on the first side which, I recall from back in 1996, is generally better than the second side, but more in the sense that it has more of the immediately catchy stuff. It was still early enough in my TMBG fanhood that I very much looked forward to hearing “Particle Man” on every go-round of the tape. But I didn’t use fast-forward to go through the other songs. – JH

2. They Might Be Giants
This show is a Flood show. I have seen Flood shows before. I saw one in 2001 at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut, where they played some songs and then Flood in order and then some more songs. I saw one in 2008 at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, where they played Flood, joking about a They Might Be Giants tribute act called Sapphire Bullets, and then played a second full set of twenty-plus songs. I saw them mix songs from opposite sides of Flood and Lincoln on the first two of their three-night New Year’s Eve stand in 2012. This show was two sets: one basically Flood on shuffle and one with some more songs. I appreciated it this because I don’t particularly enjoy the still-active early-aughts trend of concerts where a particular album is played straight through. I mean, if TMBG did John Henry straight through in concert, I’d be there in a flash, and the one time I’ve seen the Spin Doctors, several decades too late, they were doing all of Pocket Full of Kryptonite. But honestly, even with a one-album wonder like the Spin Doctors, I was kinda thinking I could go for some “Cleopatra’s Cat.” As much as I like a well-sequenced album, and as much as Flood is ingrained in my memory enough that I couldn’t even really tell you if it’s well-sequenced anymore because it just feels like the truth, I like not knowing what song is coming next. – JH

3. Twisting
Young Fresh Fellows: one band mentioned by They Might Be Giants that I never really investigated. – JH

4. Letterbox
I love how both of the Johns sing together on this one. They do this on a lot of Flood songs. If they’re not in unison, they’re doing different parts, like on “Dead” or “Birdhouse.” I feel like some of the later-but-not-most-recent albums were more segrgated into Flansburgh songs and Linnell songs, with maybe a harmony here and there, but not really songs they’re both all in on. They’re getting back to that, and it’s always good. -ML

5. Minimum Wage
I actually went to a Flood show where the “band” opened for themselves as a TMBG cover act called Sapphire Bullets — the thing they joked about doing at Jesse’s show. At one point, they shot a bunch of setlists out of a confetti cannon. The setlist isn’t that interesting, because it’s basically the tracklist of Flood in order, but they did have a note at the top about what their fake Sapphire Bullets names were. I wish I could remember them. -ML

6. Lucky Ball and Chain
Remember how Clarissa had a Flood poster in her bedroom in Clarissa Explains It All? -ML
Clarissa_Explains_It_All_3_MITMVC7. We Want a Rock
Last month, I mentioned the, and the bizarre interpretations they had about TMBG song lyrics. I remember it said this song, with its “rock to wind a piece of string around,” was actually about the invention of the yo-yo. -ML 

8. Your Racist Friend
One of my friends in high school had “can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding” scrawled on his backpack or his sneakers — I can’t remember which. That’s a pretty good lyric. -ML

9. Birdhouse in Your Soul
I liked “Birdhouse” right away but it seems strange in retrospect that I was probably more into “Particle Man” for the first bunch of times I listened to Flood. Some of it was probably familiarity, but I think it also had to do with needing to wait to hear “Particle Man,” whereas “Birdhouse” is the first proper song on Flood after the theme music. “Birdhouse” climbed my personal TMBG charts so steadily that I might actually now like it more than longtime favorite-ever “Ana Ng,” although really, in the right mood, “The End of the Tour” might be able to smoke them both. I also had no idea that “Birdhouse” actually charted in the U.S., at least on the modern rock charts — I thought for years that “Istanbul” was the song from Flood that actually did decent business. – JH

10. Whistling in the Dark
This one does a good job of demonstrating how the band scales up or down its arrangements depending on who’s on-hand to play with them. I’ve heard it with horns, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a really stripped down version of it, too. -ML

11. Theme from Flood
Obviously, they didn’t play the album in order, since the opening Theme went towards the end. Still, as Jesse kindasorta mentioned already, I’m sure TMBG was doing the play-the-popular-album-all-the-way-through thing before it became a big thing in the early 2000s, which is another innovation they never really got credit for. -ML

12. Someone Keeps Moving My Chair
The opener of the second side, a construction I knew in 1996 as I first had the album on cassette, and was reacquainted with in 2014 when I bought the Flood reissue on green vinyl. Generally, I feel a little silly re-buying albums on vinyl, but I’ve made exceptions for a bands, chiefly They Might Be Giants and the Hold Steady. For TMBG, especially, I take a peculiar pride in having their albums in all formats throughout the ages. In fact, the complete list of albums I have owned on cassette, CD, and vinyl is as follows: Flood, Apollo 18, John Henry, and Factory Showroom by They Might Be Giants; Graceland by Paul Simon; and Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel. – JH

13. Hearing Aid
I mentioned this last time, but I never bought Flood. I stole my sister’s boyfriend’s cd. I don’t know what Jesse means when he talks about what “side” of Flood he likes better. -ML

14. Hot Cha
This was never one of my favorite songs off of Flood — another one of those second-side numbers — and it took an out-of-context play to make me truly appreciate it. When I was a teenager, I went to the Great Escape, a theme park in Lake George, New York, not far from where I grew up, with some friends, including SportsAlcohol’s very own Rob. We went on one of those rides where cars run on a warped circular track that dips up and down while clubby music plays. This may be me mythologizing the experience in my mind, but I feel like we were loudly disparaging whatever music was bumping over the ride’s stereo system, and then whoever was running the ride switched it up and played “Hot Cha.” We were overjoyed; it was like we were being recognized. I’ve had a soft spot for the song ever since, and hey: the buzzer noise that they use at the five-second mark does sound like the end of a carnival ride. – JH

15. Women and Men
Fairly or unfairly, the Decemberists are often compared to They Might Be Giants. I can see why, I guess, and I can’t help but think that the Decemberists listened to “Women and Men” and thought, “We can do that,” before they wrote “Sons and Daughters.” -ML

16. Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love
I think when the band pretended to be Sapphire Bullets, one of the Johns went by Justin. -ML

[ETA: Michelle, in her infinite goodness, dug up the confetti-canon-shot setlist with the cheat sheet of band alias names and was kind enough to share it.


I forget about the references to Syracuse, but we can all appreciate some northern New York humor, right?]

17. Particle Man
The often tedious business of hearing “Particle Man” live is sometimes enlivened when Linnell throws in some accordion covering in the middle of the song. In this case he played a bit of “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from Rocky. – JH

18. Road Movie to Berlin
This is another second-side Flood song I’ve grown to like more as I’ve gotten older. I particularly appreciate it because TMBG used to really nail the album closers and as much as I like their later-period albums in both their experiments and their polish, they haven’t really nailed the last tracks like they did in the ’90s, when they closed albums with “Road Movie to Berlin,” “Fingertips” and “Space Suit,” “The End of the Tour,” and “The Bells Are Ringing.” Nanobots came close with a “Her Majesty”-style “Didn’t Kill Me,” but “Her Majesty” follows the Abbey Road medley, while “Didn’t Kill Me” follows the good but inconsequential “Too Tall Girl.” The new album Glean continues that tradition of slight disappointment, ending on an eponymous instrumental less lovely than “Space Suit” that doesn’t provide a postscript to second-to-last “Let Me Tell You About My Operation,” much less the whole album. “Road Movie to Berlin” has a more definitive finality to it, even the way it threatens not to resolve at the very end. Live, Flansburgh sings the verse that didn’t make it onto the album not because they meant to cut it, but because they accidentally skipped it while recording and were too nervous to ask for a re-do. – JH

19. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
I’ve mentioned before that, after years of hearing this song live, I finally went to Istanbul this year. One of the other journalists on my trip randomly had a friend that was also in Istanbul to play a gig at a hotel lobby. I went with her to see it, and it turned out to be a swing band. I’d say about 60 percent of the women and 20 percent of the men in attendance came dressed in full ’40s garb. They were all expert swing dancers, and they were into it. “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” from Glean reminds me of the music I heard that night (see below). Tres bon. -ML

20. You’re On Fire
The video for this features the actress who plays the too-nice guard on Orange Is the New Black. -ML

21. Underwater Woman
The first of five recent dial-a-songs played that would eventually appear on Glean, meaning a full third of that record got play at the Flood show. Now that the album is officially out, I can say that (a.) a lot of its songs sound better in album sequence than in alphabetical order by title; album-centrism validated! And (b.) it’s very solid in the manner of The Else — muscular songs, nothing too skippable, and some very strong power-pop moments, but perhaps lacking the spark of madness of Nanobots or even my less-preferred Join Us. The last time I heard so many They Might Be Giants songs before the album came out was Mink Car, whose long gestation period and accompanying TMBG Unlimited service meant that much of the album was heard sort of in-progress. I like Mink Car a lot, but my familiarity with many of the songs pre-release didn’t necessarily coalesce into a full album experience to me. I still hear a hodgepodge when I hear that album, albeit an intresting one (interesting that the band’s two thirteen-song albums, Factory Showroom and The Else, were both followed by particularly song-heavy, ultra-eclectic mix albums in the form of Mink and Join Us, which have more in common, I think, than a lot of fans, who seem to vastly prefer the latter, would admit). Glean sounds more album-y after a few listens. Really, given their prolific output, it’s remarkable that every TMBG album doesn’t sound like a bizarre grab bag. – JH

22. The Guitar
They Might Be Giants taught me about jams. I mean, I think I knew of the concept of a band jamming before I saw them in concert. I went to the HORDE festival in 1996, after all. But the idea of a longer, jammed-out version of a song in concert being something I’d actually enjoy was, to my recollection, basically introduced to me by “The Guitar,” which runs several minutes longer live than it does on Apollo 18. Of course, it’s not as if TMBG are unleashing 12-minute solos on even their longest songs live, but I’ve only ever seen that happen at just a handful of shows. One was Phish, because I have seen Phish live. I have also seen Dave Matthews Band live, though I don’t recall much extended jamming (though I’m sure it happened — violin player and all that). But the other one I’ve seen really jam is Built to Spill; when I saw them in New Haven in the year 2000, they played their 20-minute version of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” Before they started it, they announced that it would be their last song, for real, so if any of us got bored during it, it would be totally OK to leave; we wouldn’t miss anything. Such polite young men, Built to Spill. My roommate and I stayed for the whole thing, though, which in retrospect was a real act of good faith by Kasia, who had only listened to a little bit of Built to Spill prior to agreeing to see them with me in New Haven. The music video for “The Guitar,” as seen below, features both the lovely and talented Laura Cantrell and John Linnell’s longest hair ever. It’s one of my favorite music videos ever, and probably influenced my sense of what music videos should be like to a bizarre degree. Even stranger: I did not know, watching this video incessantly as a teenager, that I would go and live in the neighborhood where most of it was shot. The last section of it, with the fancy-looking stage, was actually shot at the Warsaw in Greenpoint, which is where I first saw Sleater-Kinney and the Hold Steady. – JH

23. Authenticity Trip
I also love the video for “The Guitar” so, so much. Laura Cantrell makes a vexed face in it, and it’s the best part of the whole thing. -ML

24. Call You Mom
Fake ending! You’ve all read A Visit from the Good Squad, right? With its chapter about fake endings/song pauses? That book is amazing. -ML

25. The Mesopotamians
I think the world of Mesopotamian scholarship is a small one. I took a class on Mesopotamia in college. I suspect the visiting professor was only teaching at my school to have access to the collection of rare clay tablets in the library at the Ivy League school that was 20 minutes away — I don’t think my class was his first priority. I did a paper or a presentation on the poet/priestess Enheduanna, and the book I used for a lot of my research (not that there were many to choose from) happened to be written by my professor’s mentor. I got a very good grade in that class.  -ML

26. Damn Good Times
If Nanobots isn’t my favorite post-’90s TMBG album, then it’s The Spine, maybe the most underrated record in the band’s catalog. It’s a particularly strong showcase for John Flansburgh; while several of Linnell’s best songs on The Spine were kicking around for several years before they made it to the album (see below), Flansburgh unleashed one of his strongest and most diverse collections of songs on The Spine, including the affecting “Memo from Human Resources,” the kickass “It’s Kickin’ In,” and live staple “Damn Good Times,” which seems to be Last Song Standing from this period.

27. Erase
Still reigns as the best song on Glean. -ML

28. Music Jail, Pt. 1 and 2
Pt. 2 > Pt. 1 -ML

29. Answer

30. Let Me Tell You About My Operation

31. Man, It’s So Loud in Here
At the March show (and the January show, where it was also played), “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” was played closer to its original rock-band arrangement, with the addition of horns rather than a synthed-up New Order-ish drum-machine beat, which is how it eventually appeared on Mink Car. A lot of TMBG songs from between 1996 and 2001 went through a variety of iterations — live, in demos, and in various studio versions — as the band went through an unusually long studio-album gap. (Aside: I’m pretty sure that in TMBG’s math, the 1999 internet-only album Long Tall Weekend gets counted as an official album. The first six albums, through Factory Showroom, each have a liner note about which number album it is; by the time we go to The Else in 2007, it was touted as the band’s twelfth, which means counting all of their children’s albums plus one and only one of what I’d consider their not-quite-albums. According to the TMBG Wiki, that one is Long Tall Weekend, which makes sense enough but is a little difficult for me to reconcile, knowing that almost all of the songs on that album were recorded in the Factory Showroom sessions and, further, one of them, “Token Back to Brooklyn,” actually appeared as a secret track on Showroom, while “Older,” and “She Thinks She’s Edith Head” later appeared on Mink Car and “The Edison Museum” later appeared on No!, and others turned up on the compilation They Got Lost; to me this pretty clearly marks Long Tall Weekend as more of a de facto B-side collection along the lines of Album Raises New and Troubling Questions or Cast Your Pod to the Wind, not the band’s seventh studio album. As such, I think of the five-year gap between Factory and Mink as lacking a proper studio album.) Some of the band’s best-ever songs surfaced during this period, but I doubt many would tag the next album that resulted, Mink Car, as one of the best, in part because of the way many of its songs came sort of predigested by the most hardcore fans. As much as I like Mink Car and really like The Spine from 2004, I do wonder what would have happened if TMBG had saved a lot of their miscellaneous songs written between 1997 and 2002 and put them out together in 1999 or so. I tend to think something with a tracklist like this would have been one of their very best albums ever:

Dr. Worm
Cyclops Rock
Man, It’s So Loud in Here
She Thinks She’s Edith Head
4 of 2
First Kiss
Rest Awhile
On the Drag
Working Undercover for the Man
Certain People I Could Name
Finished with Lies
Museum of Idiots

Of course, that album would step on the toes of not just Mink but also No! and The Spine. But it is strange, the degree to which John and John were way on top of their songwriting game during this period yet made albums that hardly anyone seems to consider their favorite (despite my defense of The Spine above). – JH

32. Doctor Worm

33. Number Three
Flood shows are interesting in that they take three encore staples — “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, and “Particle Man” — out of the running for encore slots. Usually that makes the encore a lot more exciting for me personally. This time, I’m not sure this was the strongest show ending. I would’ve loved to see “The Guitar” or “New York City” here instead.  – ML

34. When Will You Die
It’s cheesy, but I do get a kick out of a song that introduces or makes reference to the band members. -ML

35. Mr. Me

36. Robot Parade
The lullabye-ish feel to this is a good vibet to end on, but I still wish they would alternate this with “Sleepwalkers.” -ML

Previously in this series: