(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #27 – released January 15, 1990. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 3/24/2015.)
Track listing: Theme From Flood / Birdhouse In Your Soul / Lucky Ball and Chain / Istanbul (Not Constantinople) / Dead / Your Racist Friend / Particle Man / Twisting / We Want A Rock / Someone Keeps Moving My Chair / Hearing Aid / Minimum Wage / Letterbox / Whistling In The Dark / Hot Cha / Women and Men / Sapphire Bullets of Love / They Might Be Giants / Road Movie To Berlin
Two pleasantly anonymous guest vocalists announce, “It’s a brand new record for 1990!” on the brief, somewhat mocking opening “Theme From Flood”, although I didn’t even make an effort to listen to the album until 1993. A month away from turning fifteen upon its release, I wasn’t yet ready for it. All I knew of They Might Be Giants was an appearance on a now-forgotten cable-TV music video show aimed preteens a year or two before. As guest VJs, this duo of Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell) were just plain odd, speaking in purposely stilted tones like a local affiliate’s Saturday night horror film hosts; the clip for their then-single, “Ana Ng” was even stranger, music and visuals and song title alike. “What is this weird geek-rock?”, I must have thought. Over the next few years, I stood by my perception of TMBG as music for nerds, a designation my status-obsessed teenage self had little use for. Still, I firmly remember “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” lodging itself in my brain for a few days after stumbling across its video on MTV and feeling perplexed, then annoyed, then amused while perusing the lyrics of “Particle Man” after spotting them randomly written down on a classroom blackboard.
By the summer after high school graduation, my musical tastes were evolving. I had widened my scope beyond the top 40 and those days of only buying a new-to-me artist’s album after hearing and liking more than two songs from it on the radio (yes, I admit it!). Abbey Road and other records were openings to brave new worlds, encouraging me to absorb an obsessive amount of music. I devoured classic-rock radio playlists, made periodic trips to all libraries within a ten-mile radius to check out CDs, and borrowed stuff from friends’ personal music collections. It was via the latter ritual where I found a dubbed cassette copy of Flood. I still remember the hand-written track listing, full of speculative song titles obviously not copied from the source material (“Bag of Groceries” instead of “Dead”, “Never Never Know” in place of “Letterbox”, etc.;). Predictably, what I had once dismissed as uncool and off-putting now instantly hit me where I lived. I listened to Flood over and over ‘til I knew it by heart, rapidly acquired TMBG’s other three studio albums (plus the aptly-named rarities comp Miscellaneous T) and for at least the next two years, they were one of my favorite bands.
As for this delayed response, was I simply “Through Being Cool” (to borrow a song title from fellow geeky rockers/heavy influence Devo)? Or did I now recognize TMBG as more than a mere novelty act? Beyond the occasionally silly voices, groaning puns and copious accordion usage, Flood is often as lovingly crafted and melodiously accessible as most pop music of its day. One need look no further than “Birdhouse In Your Soul” for proof—arguably the band’s signature tune (“Ana Ng” which I grew to love, is a close second) and an unexpected top ten UK hit as well, it boasts an immediately memorable chorus and a surplus of hooks that, as J. D. Considine once wrote about the band, “leave you feeling like a freshly landed trout.” As three-minute pop songs go, though, it’s also defiantly quirky. The playful, nonsensical opening (“I’m your only friend / I’m not your only friend”) is all quiet and subdued until the volume suddenly revs up to “Pow!” levels at the first chorus. They drop in relatively obscure smarty-pants references such as the Longines Symphonette and Jason and the Argonauts without batting an eye. And even though the chorus unmasks the song as a paean to a night-lite (“Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch / who watches over you”), it’s unorthodox enough for pop that it may fly over a casual listener’s head, especially if one fixates solely on the enigmatic song title.
“Birdhouse In Your Soul” is one of four Flood tracks helmed by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, a British production duo best known for their work with Madness and Elvis Costello. Presumably made possible by TMBG’s jump to major label Elektra, this was the band’s first time recording in an “actual, real, multitrack studio” (according to Flansburgh). Indeed, “Birdhouse” seems positively lush compared to anything on They Might Be Giants (1987) or Lincoln (1988), as does “Your Racist Friend”, whose big, bold sound is more of-its-time than anything else on the record. However, that doesn’t translate as “anonymous” or “lacking distinction” either, as the accordion remains prominent and the arrangement’s imaginative enough to find room for such unexpected touches as a burst of incensed guitar fury or a mariachi breakdown made ironic by lyrics illustrating a dismissal of the titular bastard and also the mutual acquaintance standing idly by.
The other two Langer/Winstanley tracks are not departures so much as seasoned refinements of the band’s low-fi, handmade aesthetic. Musically, “We Want A Rock” is textbook TMBG with perhaps all the rough edges sanded off, wrapping another revolving melody that won’t quit around another inscrutable lyric that somehow leaps from everybody wanting “a rock to tie a string around” to a desire for wearing “prosthetic foreheads on their real heads.” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is more of a curveball, cheekily remaking a long-forgotten early 1950s novelty hit at a quicker tempo and with instrumentation (violin, trumpet, and (naturally) accordion) that might’ve informed Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Grand Budapest Hotel nearly a quarter-century later. As Flood’s second single, the song became such a fan favorite that by 1994 when I first saw them on tour, they played it at an unrecognizable, super-exaggeratedly slo-mo tempo—a sign that they had tired of performing it as is, show after show.
With those four songs reportedly eating up two-thirds of the album’s budget, the rest of Flood is self-produced, thankfully. While all four are highlights, the Johns repeatedly prove that (apart from maybe “Your Racist Friend”), what Langer/Winstanley brought to the table wasn’t anything they weren’t capable of themselves. I even had to double check that the synthy power pop (with barely a hint of accordion) of “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” wasn’t a Langer/Winstanley track. Also, I can’t imagine how the Brits could’ve possibly enhanced the deceptively upbeat rockabilly of “Lucky Ball and Chain” (which masterfully weaves in a Bob Dylan lyric and interpolates “Here Comes The Bride” in an outro conflicted between resolve and regret) any further. Same thing goes for “Twisting”, a farfisa organ-accented rave up containing not one wasted note and intriguing for how its beatific chorus lyric (“Twisting, slowly twisting in the wind”) seems forever at odds with the happy surf pop buttressing it.
Elsewhere, the Johns gleefully seize any growth potential in their major label move while remaining delightfully weird/themselves. “Dead” strips all down to vocal harmonies and a wobbly piano; it would make a nifty family-friendly sing-along if not for the title or the line where the narrator apologizes for forcing a sibling to become his personal slave when he was eight. “Whistling In The Dark” aspires to be a manifesto/fight song of self-purpose, albeit one backed by stately faux-harpsichord and sung in a deliberately wooden, average schmo cadence as if coming from an assumed character far less loquacious than Linnell or Flansburgh. “Hot Cha” softens its rhythmic gewgaws and abrasive underneath with a jazzy bop and cool (fake) vibes (all it’s missing are finger snaps, which the Johns already put to good use on Lincoln’s “Lie Still, Little Bottle”). “Hearing Aid” goes furthest out there (dribbling to a close with skronk guitar from No Wave legend turned Bossa Nova revivalist Arto Lindsay) while still retaining a recognizable structure (reggae rhythms and a disarming cheapo synth trumpet hook).
As with all TMBG albums, Flood is not devoid of filler. It’s occasionally glorious filler, like “Minimum Wage”, a ludicrous, laugh-out-loud conjoining of TV western theme song (complete with dramatic whip crack!) and anonymous industrial film score, or “Letterbox” whose rollicking melody, furious wordplay and backwards tape-loop effects don’t have time to wear out their welcome, clocking in at an economical 1:25. I’ll leave it to others to defend surface-plenty, otherwise-empty “Sapphire Bullets of Love” or lament (in all senses of the word) of a closer “Road Movie To Berlin”, forgettable except for that brief freak-out which could be an audition for the Twin Peaks soundtrack. But then, there’s also filler so painstakingly crafted and persistently unique that it transcends the very label. Lyrically, “Particle Man” does not make any goddamn sense and I doubt it’s even supposed to, but it’s endearing for its simplicity, commitment and effortlessly nagging melody, even if it’s just utter nonsense. The penultimate “They Might Be Giants” deconstructs the very idea of a band recording its own theme song, giddily offering an olive branch stacked with hooks (most effective is the singsong intonation of the title, followed by a low-throated, bouncy “Boy!”) only to keep repeatedly, teasingly pulling it away. By the song’s Muppet-like vocals on fade out, we now know TMBG *might* be “Dr. Spock’s backup band” or even “big, big, fake, fake lies.” In other words, we know no more about the Johns than we did three minutes ago, even if we can’t shake this earworm of a song (presumably) about them.
TMBG never recorded another album as solid as Flood, although Apollo 18 (1992) is a likable follow-up, especially “Fingertips”, a suite of song snippets only a pair of ambitious slackers could devise. From there, following varied attempts at more traditional full-band recordings, the Johns gradually became a cottage industry, releasing albums with content deliberately aimed at kids (admittedly not too far off from their “adult” stuff), composing sitcom theme songs and commercial jingles, proving themselves once and again as songwriters of a certain mettle. Their entire catalogue is strewn with tunes as good as any on Flood (“How Can I Sing Like A Girl?”, “Another First Kiss” and “(We’re The) Mesopotamians” to single out three personal faves) and recent albums like Nanobots are far from embarrassing. But even though Flood didn’t exactly make TMBG a household name, it’s still their most significant cultural moment, not to mention an artifact from a halcyon time when such a band could dip their toes into the commercial mainstream, their coolness (or lack thereof) simply, blissfully irrelevant.
Flood is also an ideal pick for the first record of a decade containing more of my 100 favorite albums than any other (even if this particular LP was all technically conceived and recorded in the 1980s). As we will see, this was an era when music production snowballed, with major labels courting so-called niche artists such as TMBG, exposing them to wider audiences and in turn, influencing a cross-pollination of genres, creating an ideal environment for many of the decade’s best (and most idiosyncratic) records to thrive.
Up next: if ‘60s (and ‘70s and even ‘80s) were ‘90s.
“Birdhouse In Your Soul”:
“They Might Be Giants”: