Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record for 1990
They Might Be Giants’ brand new album…
It was certainly meant as a joke, but this song, the opening number of They Might Be Giants’ third album, reflected quite accurately how my peers and I felt. We were in the very, very small portion of the population who even knew that the band existed before Flood was released. Afterward, that very, very small group expanded to become a still very small group. But to me and my precocious, high-strung, New York City friends, no one was awesomer than John Flansburgh and John Linnell, two hardcore nerds, childhood friends who lived in Brooklyn (before it was hip) and wrote songs about…well, it was sometimes hard to tell. Their melodies were playful and unpredictable, mostly keyboard based with frequent appearances of the accordion. Their vocals were adenoidal in the extreme, and their lyrics were full of non sequiturs and wordplay, dissecting pop culture, romantic clichés, and paranoia. Their “Dial-A-Song” service offered a new musical recording every day for the price of a local (area code 718) call. For overeducated urban teens born at the end of the Vietnam era and growing up in the Big ’80s, they seemed like the funniest, smartest guys on earth.
They Might Be Giants, a.k.a. TMBG, had already made two albums, the eponymous debut and its follow-up, Lincoln (which boasts the single many longtime fans would identify, even now, as their signature song, “Ana Ng”). Both sounded like they could have been recorded in a matter of hours in someone’s apartment – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Once signed to a major label, the band began to sound more like, um, a band. Flood was distinguished from its predecessors by identifiable “production” and a much larger roster of contributing musicians. Its songs clocked in at about two and half minutes on average, having expanded from their previous “blink and you’ll miss it” brevity. Also, John and John’s trademark quirkiness was more focused – if quirkiness can be said to be focused. As delightful as tracks like “Chess Piece Face” and “Pencil Rain” may be, they make absolutely no sense, no matter how many obscure literary allusions you think you can identify in their lyrics. Flood contained fewer nonsense tunes and more apparent satire and crackpot philosophy, including “Particle Man,” “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” and my dad’s favorite, “Your Racist Friend” (he and my mom heard quite a bit of TMBG that year, while driving me and a friend around on college trips). However, balancing out these sounds of snarkiness were tunes of irrepressible glee, such as “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (still the band’s highest charting single) and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” a cover of a minor 1950’s hit that sounded as if it had been waiting forty years for just this group.
My pals and I were proud of our Giants. Just like us, they were growing up and coming into their own, while still resisting actual maturity. They had been “discovered” by the dominant culture, which had given them a bigger playroom to make their messes in. Surely this would make them superstars. This fantasy reached its peak in the summer of 1991, when on the eve of my freshman year of college, I saw TMBG rock the Beacon Theatre like only they can. If you think geeks can’t work it out at a live show, think again – both band and audience tore it up. Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived on campus, met my new, non-Northeastern roommates, and discovered that no one west of New Jersey had ever heard of John and John (though they soon would – the band was certainly one of the hardest working in show business, playing club after club in and around the New York metro area. To date, I have seen them seven times, more than any other act. I actually got thrown to the floor and trampled at one of their shows. Nerd rock can get wild).
The legacy of Flood is a mixed bag. It’s the only They Might Be Giants album to go platinum…though it only reached that milestone last year. The “surge,” if you will, that the record provided the band’s career subsided in the late 1990s, when they left Elektra Records. They continue to do their thing in various forms, including kids’ albums (No!, Here Come the ABC’s), TV (Malcolm in the Middle, ads for Dunkin’ Donuts), movies (the “Dr. Evil” theme from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), and in live shows. Unfortunately, hipsters and yuppie douchebags who probably only know half the words to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” now show up to their gigs. Ah, the perils of fame. I’m glad Flood got made – the amount of pleasure I have gotten from lyrics like “Now it’s over, I’m dead, and I haven’t done anything that I want” is unquantifiable – but I don’t go out to see them play much these days. I have seen John Linnell in the subway, though, on his way back home to Brooklyn.