They Might Be Giants: Biography and Bibliography in Brooklyn (May Edition)

They Might Be Giants is playing a show on the last Sunday of (almost) every month of 2015 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. Marisa and I have been attending them, and we will be reporting on each show. Here is the fifth installment of our TMBG musical biography, arriving more than a little late.

They Might Be Giants at the Music Hall of Williamsburg: 5/31/15

1. Climbing the Walls
This was a show spotlighting TMBG’s 2007 album The Else, an interesting conceit because their album-spotlight shows tend to revolve around the first three releases: the Pink Album, Lincoln, and Flood. There have been occasional Apollo 18 and Factory Showroom shows in the last decade, but none that I’ve been to, and anyway, that still doesn’t include any of their post-90s albums. In a recent SPIN piece I’ve already read several times (and no one is more surprised than I am to read that clause), Linnell mentions that he really likes The Else and how that record “in particular made [him] very concerned and worried subsequently about trying to match the quality of that recording,” especially interesting to me because it seemed like, at the time, the sparer and weirder Join Us was talked up as a corrective to the heavier, more rock-and-roll vibe of The Else, and a lot of TMBG fans (who do sometimes fetishize the band’s weirdness, experimental work, and/or lack of guitar solos) seemed to agree. So I’m pleased that the band was interested enough in revisiting a relatively recent album to plan a show around it. A song like “Climbing the Walls” probably won’t make many best-of-TMBG lists but, like a lot of these songs, it is a perfect example of what it sounds like to listen to They Might Be Giants.

2. Music Jail, Pt. 1 and 2

3. Upside Down Frown
While I think I appreciate TMBG going straightforward rock-and-roll moreso than a lot of their fans, who sometimes seem to want straight up Pink Album around-fucking pretty much constantly, I do admit that streamlining of The Else led to the strange effect of the album being very smooth, professional, tight, and still relatively weird, but a lot of the most inspired TMBG songs of that era getting relegated to a bonus disc that was packaged with the album’s first printing. Cast Your Pod to the Wind finds the band cleaning up some songs originally distributed via their podcast, some of which might have been among the best songs on The Else (“Brain Problem Situation,” “We Live in a Dump”), some of which are bizarre curiosities (“Kendra McCormick,” “Vestibule”), and some of which, like “Why Did You Grow a Beard?” are very much both. I think of that last one during “Upside Down Frown,” because “Frown” has a lyric about how “the landscape goes all weird/black is white and the rainbow has a beard.” Nothing against “Frown,” but “Beard” is the better beard-mentioning TMBG song of 2007.

4. Rhythm Section Want Ad
Finally, a Pink Album song makes an appearance outside of the Pink Album show, and it’s not “Number Three”! “Number Three” is inferior for a number of reasons, including but not limited to its lack of a breakdown using “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott.

5. Careful What You Pack
“Careful What You Pack” does not appear in the feature motion picture Coraline. The only TMBG song that appears in it is called “Other Father Song,” and it is sung by John Linnell, subbing for the non-singing voice of TMBG friend John Hodgman, who plays Coraline’s father (and button-eyed Other Father) in the film. Apparently TMBG worked on a number of songs for the film that didn’t wind up fitting; according to Flansburgh, they weren’t creepy enough, which is really something for a band that wrote “Hall of Heads,” “Spider,” “O Do Not Forsake Me,” and “Skullivan,” among others. “Careful What You Pack,” though, is admittedly not creepy. It is one of the best songs on The Else, though, with an electronic intro and beautiful acoustic strumming. It is, in fact, the song from The Else I included on this annotated list I put together for the A.V. Club.

6. Ana Ng

7. Number Three
Oh. OK then.

8. Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel

9. The Cap’m
TMBG have lots of unreliable narrator songs; this is one of my recent favorites. I love the aggressive way the narrator pursues his (likely) delusions, pressing the listener: “Did you say what I think you just said?/My hat looks good on me?/I agree! I agree.”

10. Take Out the Trash
Here’s how reading too much Pitchfork has fucked me up: I still associate this song, to some degree, with a zing from writer Rob Mitchum’s review of the album, noting that “Flansburgh’s (hopefully) unintentional biting of Smash Mouth is what ultimately sinks the song.” There are tons of things wrong with this critique: first, it ignores the influence of ’60s garage pop on TMBG and the idea that it might sound like Smash Mouth because Smash Mouth (having released a Doors-lite soundalike and a cover of “I’m a Believer,” among others) traffics in those same influences. Second, and less importantly, it ignores that “Walking on the Sun” and “All Star” are both pretty good songs, and that’s coming from someone who loves to joke about Smash Mouth. But I almost always think of that review when I hear this song, even though I like it, and even though the number of Pitchfork reviews I’ve read in full over the past five years probably numbers fewer than 20. So don’t ever let me downplay their influence.

11. With the Dark
I associate this song a little bit with “For Science,” which is a far more compact (and silly) evocation of a rock-opera style, but this is really a song suite with three or so different parts, something TMBG more often does by including multiple super-short songs rather than combining them into one.

12. Bills, Bills, Bills

13. Bee of the Bird of the Moth
I first heard this song about a year before The Else came out, at the band’s first free “Audience Appreciation Show” at Mohegan Sun, a casino in Connecticut (they play there again this November). I believe it was the only brand-new song in the rotation, and it did not auger well, but it turns out that it’s the worst song on The Else, so it’s cool. While Linnell’s “Climbing the Walls” sounds like archetypal TMBG, songs like “Bee of the Bird of the Moth” and “Wearing a Raincoat” (the latter from The Spine) sound more like a TMBG self-parody, or at least self-pastiche. And “Wearing a Raincoat” has some good lines in it that “Moth” can’t match. The show at Mohegan Sun was fun, though. We got there ridiculously early, and so did plenty of other TMBG nerds (there are few indie-rock bands at TMBG’s level of overall popularity where I couldn’t be one of the first people in line to see their shows just by showing up a little bit early, but there are always at least five or ten TMBG fans who get to a show like eight hours ahead of time). The security guard telling us where we could line up when the time came said that many people had asked about TMBG, but it was nothing compared to when Herman’s Hermits played there, and people showed up literally days ahead of time to form a line, then break for the evening and reform the line in the same order the next day. This seems insane but at the same time the line-management stickler in me was very impressed.

14. Damn Good Times

15. Answer

16. Let Me Tell You About My Operation

17. I’m Impressed
I feel like I can actually hear the Dust Brothers production on this song, which is interesting because they did not produce it (though Linnell has alluded to their influence turning up in this song). They produced about half of The Else, including the songs that sound the most like New Pornographers, Smash Mouth, a rock opera, and TMBG themselves.

18. Birdhouse in Your Soul

19. Erase

20. Contrecoup
It was pretty much between this and “Feign Amnesia” for which Else song they’d skip, and I’m sorry to say this one made the cut. It’s fine — apparently originating from a songwriting challenge to include an outdated word that nobody much uses anymore — but “Feign Amnesia,” beyond the vocal effects (I assume but don’t know that the vocals are multitracked) that make it sound like a New Pornographers singalong, seems easy enough to play live. But it’s never been played live! Beyond the song’s tone, I feel like “if the bass doesn’t get you, the treble will get you” very much sounds like an A.C. Newman type of line, although it’s hard to tell if the band was doing an intentional style parody or just happened to absorb some influences similar to those of the New Pornographers.

21. Twisting

22. Withered Hope
A late-period go-to for a while for any show with horns, which, as Marisa will always point out, is a shame considering the similar-era “Museum of Idiots” is (a.) great and (b.) our wedding song, so come on, guys, give us a break.

23. I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar

24. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

25. Drink!

25. Particle Man

26. We Live in a Dump

27. Unpronounceable

28. Don’t Let’s Start

29. The Shadow Government
One of my Else favorites, which I don’t think I’d ever seen performed before. TMBG is not a particularly political band but “The Shadow Government” and “Black Ops” (from Nanobots) show off Flansburgh’s talent for absurdist satire that doesn’t wear its commentary too heavily.

30. The Mesopotamians

By far the most-played song they do from The Else, and while it’s not exactly my favorite of the record, I would say it’s probably the most essential on its own. I might have mentioned this before, but I feel like I saw this song take shape when TMBG covered the theme from The Monkees at a 20th anniversary show in 2003. A deadpan Linnell described it as a song that felt like it was written specifically for them, and “The Mesopotamians” seems like an attempt to write a Monkees-style theme song that still wasn’t actually about them.

31. New York City

32. The Famous Polka

33. Doctor Worm

34. Can’t Keep Johnny Down

35. Robot Parade