They Might Be Giants – A User’s Guide to They Might Be Giants

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It took me a very long time to come around on TMBG. When I was in high school, they were very popular with some subgroup of nerdy theater kids, who drank in the band’s quirkiness. I found TMBG to reek of artifice; I thought they were trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, and as this was a time when I was desperately wishing I could fit in better (or at all), I found the whole act to be contrived, off-putting, and ultimately insulting. I was offended that TMBG could think being an outsider was somehow fun and funny, when all I felt was loneliness, shame, and rejection. I started to thaw in college, when “The Statue Got Me High” came out. Eventually, I came to appreciate and perhaps love the band, who are hyper-intelligent, clever, creative, and hilarious absurdists; I guess I just had to be more comfortable with myself.

What I Think of This Album

There is a lot to talk about here even before we get to the 29 tracks that serve as a haphazard but successful retrospective. To begin, the liner notes are mind-bogglingly dense. There are lists and charts galore. There is a list, with dates, of (almost) every show the band has ever played. There is a list (alphabetical) of every musician who contributed to any album. Some relevant names are Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing); Roger Moutenot (producer of Sleater-Kinney, Yo La Tengo, and others), Robert Quine (who recorded with Matthew Sweet); Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne); and Lyle Workman (played with Frank Black).

There is a list (also alphabetical) of all the TMBG songs. There is a chart showing the “frequency of TMBG gigs in places beginning with “New.”” There is a map isolating the states in the union that TMBG never played in. There is a list of every POTUS mentioned in TMBG lyrics. There is a list of other artists TMBG has referenced in their songs (including the dB’s, the Young Fresh Fellows, and the Replacements). There is a chart illustrating the liquids featured in TMBG lyrics, and one comparing the personal pronouns in TMBG song titles. A track listing, of course, exists.

And the band also documents their albums. And there is a timeline of historical facts relevant to TMBG songs, including “worms evolve;” “the Odyssey written;” and “US minimum wage established.” Study of the back cover reveals that the track listing is an almost perfect parabola or bell curve or some such thing, based on song length. Each of songs 1-12 has a longer running time than its predecessor; each of songs 13-29 gets shorter.

As for the actual music, it’s a highly enjoyable mix that spans the band’s career into 2002, not emphasizing one album too much over any other (Flood gets a record five songs, while Apollo 18 gets four, and the rest of the distribution is fairly democratic). What jumps out is how a pair of nerdy goofballs overly reliant on the accordion can offer such visceral thrills. And how the decision to refract the childlike wonder of Jonathan Richman through a post-modern prism paid off so satisfyingly.

Is there anything more satisfying than singing “You son of a bitch / I palindrome I”? The shouted lyrics on “Cyclops Rock” (including the list of ‘60s era dances:  “pony, twist, monkey, and frug / These are the things that I taught to you”) and the angry, Chucky-referencing vocals are a revelation; the scream in the middle is so liberating. The faltering defiance of “Boss of Me” prevents the song from being merely bratty. The life-altering (-ending?) encounter with sculpture in personal favorite “The Statue Got Me High” wouldn’t be as effectively communicated without its pounding drums.

Also valuable are the pop songs that were not hits, like the flowing “She’s an Angel,” the ‘60s parody “Purple Toupee,” the ridiculous “Dr. Worm” (about a worm who is trying to improve his drumming), and the wistful “They’ll Need a Crane.” The soul pastiche of “The Guitar” is entertaining, based on African classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (written in 1939, with lyrics in Zulu, by Solomon Linda and originally titled “Mbube”). “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” is deeply strange, whose lyrics render it a bizarro new wave song.

All the hits are here, of course:  “Anna Ng,” “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” the cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Don’t Let’s Start.”

And, for better or worse (worse, definitely worse), there are the sillier numbers like “Minimum Wage” and ”Particle Man,” among just a few included here, and the history songs of “Meet James Ensor” and “James K. Polk,” which are barely worth mentioning.

TMBG also cover Cub’s “New York City” with some revised lyrics. Too bad “The Communists Have the Music” came a few years too late to be included.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Statue Got Me High”

Release Date

May, 2005

The Cover Art

An abstract work that only makes sense if you look at the back cover. In any event, the colors are hideous.

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