These days, the nerd-rock genre is alive and well. From comedic acts like Paul & Storm to more serious ones like I Fight Dragons and Jonathan Coulton, there are many choices out there for the nerdy music fan if you know where to look. But today, I wanted to reach back into the past to talk about the originators of the nerd-rock genre, Brooklyn’s own They Might Be Giants (TMBG).
John Flansburgh and John Linnell began writing songs together while in high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts, but didn’t form an actual band until after college, when they reunited in Brooklyn. Their name comes from a passage in Miguel de Cervantes’s classic play Don Quixote about how the titular character mistook windmills for evil giants. Their first album came out all the way back in 1986 (a year before this blogger was born). The band first garnered attention with their Dial-a-Song service, in which they would record songs into an answering machine. Fans would call in and hear their songs played over the phone lines… when they could actually get through without a busy signal, that is. TMBG later became known for their lyrics, which when read independently of their catchy and happy melodies, sound incredibly sad and depressing. This is illustrated by several “dramatic readings” of their lyrics in the autobiographical documentary film Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), such as this rendition of “The End of the Tour,” by Michael McKean of Better Call Saul fame:
Or “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” from their third album Flood:
But here I’d like to focus on the music they made outside of their heyday. The album Mink Car, released on 9/11 (yes, that 9/11…), showcased their trademark quirky style with songs such as “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” and featured less of the darker lyrics than their other albums. They continued along this path with No! in 2002, which was billed as their first children’s album. It largely dealt with more neutral and positive subjects as going to bed, crossing the street, and interactions with parents. My favorite song on that album is the title track, for its cool guitar part that plays in the chorus:
Their next album, The Spine, came in 2004 and many fans and critics wondered if the band had lost their edge. The album did not have many of their trademark idiosyncrasies, and many wondered if they could recapture their old form. The Spine marked the band’s first foray into animated music videos, which would become a trend for them in the next few years. They teamed up with Homestar Runner to make the video for my favorite track on this album, “Experimental Film.”
After The Spine, TMBG took a brief hiatus from touring to focus on other projects, such as People Are Wrong!, a musical produced by John Flansburgh and written by his wife Robin Goldwasser. They also contributed “Tippecanoe & Tyler Too,” to the Future Soundtrack for America compilation. The song was written as a campaign song for the ninth President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, and his running mate John Tyler. Given TMBG’s penchant for songs discussing scientific and historical topics, their contribution to this project seems only natural. TMBG also continued their foray into children’s music, releasing Here Come the ABCs in 2005.
In 2007, The Else returned the band to its roots, with many comparing it to their classic albums. It’s easy to see when you listen to songs like “The Mesopotamians,” “Take Out the Trash,” and “Climbing the Walls.” Around 2006, the band also started to make podcasts of remixes, rarities, covers, and new songs. A bonus CD of these songs was included with The Else, and features the track “We Live in a Dump,” which I find hilarious and infectious.
After The Else, TMBG continued their foray into kid’s music with two more albums (Here Come the 123s and Here Comes Science). 2011’s album Join Us had several classic TMBG moments, such as “When Will You Die,” a song that could easily be a subject of its own dramatic lyric reading.
2013’s Nanobots was a little more esoteric than past albums, and is honestly probably my least favorite TMBG album for that reason. A lot of what made the band great wasn’t really anywhere to be found on this record after the first track, “You’re On Fire.” Though they did indulge their science-y side by recording a track about the Internet’s favorite scientist, Nikola Tesla.
In the years following Nanobots, however, TMBG has returned to their roots in a big way with the resurrection of the Dial-a-Song service, whose initial iteration had been dismantled in 2006. Taking advantage of technological innovations, the new service was called Dial-a-Song Direct, and featured the band releasing a song every week for a year. Fans could subscribe to the online service and get access to each song in the project, along with some bonus tracks. For nostalgia’s sake, there was also a phone number fans could call to hear these songs on the phone lines. Probably my favorite song in the whole project is called “Answer.”
These songs were collected into three albums that were released in 2015 and 2016: Glean, Why?, and Phone Power. I reviewed each of these albums in-depth on my personal blog, and you can find those here, here, and here. Long story short, I regard Glean as possibly the best album TMBG has released since their peak period of 1990-1996. Why? was conceived as the spiritual successor to No!, their first children’s album. Phone Power wasn’t quite as good as the other two, and I think suffers from a lack of cohesion, given that the songs were written with the Dial-a-Song Direct project in mind, and not necessarily with the preconception that they would be made into albums. That lack of cohesion didn’t stop the first two albums, but I think John & John sort of ran out of ideas toward the end of the Dial-a-Song project, and Phone Power reflects that.
So while They Might Be Giants’ time in the mainstream music zeitgeist is long over, they’ve continued to put out great music 35 years and 19 albums later. If you have a nerdy, quirky personality like myself, you owe it to yourself to get to know this band. And if you haven’t listened to them much since Flood or Apollo 18, pick up one of their more recent albums and pop it into your player. They might surprise you.
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