They Might Be Giants: The Spine: a pseudo-review
I don't know about you, but for me it's impossible to think rationally about They Might Be Giants. I still remember them the way I first heard them: it was late 1991, I was 13 years old and in middle school, and my two-years-older-and-way-way-cooler sister brought home a copy of Flood she'd borrowed from a friend. At the time, if you'd asked me who my favorite band was, I'd've said it was Weird Al, though to be honest I never really listened much to his stuff and even then it got grating pretty quickly. But the only other music I'd heard, which is to say Madonna, Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block and various imitations, didn't do anything at all for me, and at least Weird Al was funny. So he was my favorite. It's fair to say that I wasn't that much of a music fan.
But my sister brought this CD home and there it was on the dining room table. I had seen the Tiny Toon Adventures videos of "Particle Man" and "Istanbul" and those songs had seemed catchy enough to pique my interest. So I got out the Discman portable CD player, put the big black headphones on, sat down at the table and put in the disc. I pressed play and out came the album's title track:
"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 'Flood!'"
I don't remember if I was already hooked before "Birdhouse in Your Soul" started or whether it didn't happen until I heard "Birdhouse"'s opening synth and the big volume increase right as John Linnell started singing the first verse, but in any event by the time the album got around to "Dead," "Twisting," "We Want a Rock," and "Road Movie To Berlin" I was in love. The songs were melodious and pretty, which I liked, but even more than that I liked their lyrics. They Might be Giants were funny, but they weren't telling jokes: I never got the impression that they were just trying to do musical stand-up comedy for the length of an album. I probably laughed the first time I heard John Flansburgh sing "sure as you can't steer a train, you can't change your fate" on "Lucky Ball and Chain," for instance, but after it stopped being funny it was still an evocative lyric to me.
I listened to that album over and over again, though my sister only borrowed it for a weekend or so. I didn't have nearly the kind of resources it takes to just go out and buy a CD, though, so after it was gone I did without, and as happens with most crushes the urgency of hearing that music faded away over time. But I had made no secret of how much I'd liked it, and so for Christmas my sister got me a copy of Lincoln, their second album (Flood was their third). I loved Lincoln even more than Flood. "Ana Ng," "Cowtown," "Lie Still, Little Bottle," "Mr. Me," "I've Got a Match," "They'll Need a Crane" — how could anyone not love these songs with all-consuming passion? They were funny, they were melancholy, they were rockin', they seemed to go all over the musical map compared to the monotone bands I was used to, they were just plain great to an awkward 13-year-old boy who thought he was smarter than everybody else but actually was just in more desperate need of a haircut. I had a favorite band.
I quickly saved up enough money to get their two other albums (They Might Be Giants, their first album, and Miscellaneous T, a b-sides compilation) and listened to them fanatically. I was at the Turtles Records store the day Apollo 18 came out. They introduced me to completist/obsessive collecting thanks to their habit of putting 4 or 5 good unreleased songs on every EP. They introduced me to online fandom back in the days of The Prodigy Network where groups of like-minded fans would pontificate about the deeper meanings of "Dead" or the symbology of "Particle Man" at length. They introduced me to the fan's compulsion to spread the love far and wide, and I'm sure I convinced more than a few people that I was a freak when my friends and I would walk down the halls singing songs from Flood between classes. They introduced me to concerts: I went to my first real live show at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points to see them touring in support of Apollo 18, and it totally blew my mind. I stood right by the 10-foot high speaker, took off the rubber band that held my ponytail, and headbanged all the way through the show. I bought my first band t-shirt there and got some promo posters to tape up to my wall.
After that I went to every Giants show that came by for years afterwards. I remember walking from my my house to Emory University's campus to see a free show they did there when I was finishing up middle school. I went to a show in Buckhead during high school that absolutely sucked because of all the damn yuppies who were just there to act kitchy-cool — oh, I forgot to mention, they introduced me to hatin' on scenesters — and I came back to Atlanta after my first year in college to find out that they were doing a free show at Georgia Tech, a couple of miles away from my parents' house. I drove 140 miles to get my best high-school friend from Athens where he went to school so we could both see the show, and then drove him back after the show was over. When there wasn't a live show, I was listening to Severe Tire Damage, the band's official live CD. I bought it the day it came out and took a ridiculously long route home so I could listen to the whole album on the way.
All that was a long time ago. I went to fewer and fewer They Might Be Giants shows in college and got less and less obsessive about following their music. Maybe a part of that was because their albums were getting worse: I don't think anybody thinks John Henry was all that great, for instance, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone willing to go to the mat for anything they released after that. But more of it was because somewhere in there I discovered the joys of musical polygamy and my tastes exploded: in high school I discovered REM, XTC, the Pixies, Possum Dixon, Tom Waits, Pavement, Violent Femmes, and Palace, and in college I found the Mountain Goats, Neutral Milk Hotel, DJ Shadow, Jeff Buckley, Sunny Day Real Estate and Jeremy Enigk, the Magnetic Fields, Leonard Cohen, Quasi, Prince, and too many more to list. But They Might Be Giants made all that possible for me: If it weren't for Flood, would I still be listening to Weird Al? Would I blare Top-40 all day without ever digging deeper? Would I be one of those aliens who claims not to even like music? I don't know.
I owe them, and that's why it pains me a little that I no longer really like their music. The Spine, their new album out on Zoe Records, has moments: the opening song, "Experimental Film," is catchy (and the video on homestarrunner.com is wonderful); "Memo to Human Resources" is pretty good; I think "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" is woefully underrated by everyone including the faithful due to its cutesy name; and "Thunderbird" is great. But to be honest with myself, I'm grasping for reasons to like the album as a whole. It's not wowing me on its own merits.
It pains me a little, but not a lot. I still love They Might Be Giants, even if I no longer actually like their music that much. I owe them my definition of rock music and the idea that Destroyer or the Postal Service could fit into it, and to my way of thinking that's a pretty big debt. I'll always buy your albums, guys, though I may only give them one or two listens before they get lost among the piles of things I'm listening to these days that excite me more. And even if I don't make it out to see you next time you're in Chicago, you can always crash at my place afterwards.