1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 389

They Might Be Giants, by They Might Be Giants
Suggested by Katya Hosking

When people suggest things that you might like, there’s often a qualifier.

“Here are The Electric Flap Crumpets,” they’ll say, proffering a CD of an obscure jazz-fusion bongo band. “If you like The Bongo Brothers’ Assault on the Sealion Realm, you’ll love this.”

It’s a reductive statement. The friend who’s sharing their passions is introducing you to something special, but they include a back door, a hasty retreat, should you not enjoy their suggestion. It’s double-sided, allowing them to backtrack without compromising their own feelings – “So you don’t like Assault on the Sealion Realm? I can see why this leaves you cold.” – while also allowing us the same lifeline should we find their tastes lacking – “I don’t really get on with The Bongo Brothers, sorry.”

Any such statement makes me wary. The fact there’s a qualifier suggests that there’s little universal about the appeal on offer, that by introducing a subset of enjoyment they’ve stamped a huge Caveat Emptor across it. “Here’s the latest album by Testicle Flapjack. If you like the sound of a grown man vomiting onto a distressed fox, you’ll love it.”

I mention this because I’m finding that They Might Be Giants are a band in constant need of a qualifier. I came to this project having heard 1990’s Flood, and Flood alone (save a long-forgotten one-time listen of Apollo 18). That album, the third in the band’s canon, is a personal favourite, and the project has led me to their second album Lincoln (Album 290), and to their self-titled debut today.

So the qualifier for They Might Be Giants? “You’ll like this, if you enjoy ideas about songs instead of actual songs.”

I had initially thought that “… if you enjoy quirky lyrics,” or “… if you like oddball nasal delivery” would suffice, but they don’t capture my sense of irritation. This likely springs from the band’s musical makeup, consisting of one John on guitar and one John on accordion / sax, with a drum machine backing. They expanded into a full band sound in the Nineties, but here they present a very basic and pared-down musicality that trots through a host of styles but never really commits to being much more than a plain platter on which to present their trademarked obscure and clever wordplay. I think by Flood, the two Johns were much more adept at creating full and rounded songs from their left-of-centre wellspring, but here there’s a sense of “let’s just talk about someone with a Chess Piece for a Face over Preset Rhythm 3 on our Casio keyboard.

There are some fun songs, including the abovementioned Chess Piece Face. They come and go quickly, which could be a blessing or a curse, but they are memorable nonetheless. My favourite is the stomping (She Was A) Hotel Detective, but Boat of Car, Youth Culture Killed My Dog, and the frankly peculiar Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head are good value… if, as I said, you enjoy ideas of songs instead of actual songs.

This debut album gets 5/10. It gives a reference to the band’s development, as I’ve now heard one-two-three of twenty-two. I doubt I’ll ever fall deep into this band’s catalogue, but I know I’m not quite done with them yet.

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