I only know one thing for sure about They Might be Giants and that is that my brother the Elder loves them and has for as long as I can remember. I don’t think there are many bands I have liked consistently from a young age. In fact, the only two I can think of are Zeppelin and the Beatles but even that’s not the same because the eras of the two bands that I really like changes constantly. Sometimes I want early 70’s acoustic Zep instead of later more experimental stuff and once in a while I’ll listen to the early poppy Beatles instead of the super trippy stuff I normally take from later on the 60’s. I think the Elder likes They Might Be Giants all the way through and, although I don’t share his enthusiasm, I certainly respect his fortitude.
The only personal connection with the band I have is the one song I love by them, “Particle Man”. I had heard the song from my brother at some point but I really knew it from a Tiny Tunes episode where the cartoon characters actually act out the lyrics. It is funny and very well done. I believe “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” was also done in this way but I’d never had the same regard for that song.
My sophomore year of college was a big year. It was the year I declared my major and the year I met the girl I’d date for all of college and graduate school only to break up right before I received my master’s degree. Also, it was the year I partied the most and one song I had to hear after hours of Dead and Allman Brothers tunes was this song (“Particle Man”). It always provoked me to make some type of crazy dance and yell the lyrics which made absolutely zero sense to me. It is supposed to be about characters in the most literal sense, according to Wikipedia. I am not sure what that means.
As I know so little about the band, I think the best way for me to write about it is to listen to each song my brother listed in his first post and try and determine why he likes them so much. I haven’t heard these songs, at least in the sense of actively listening to them, so this is my dry run into understanding why they could or could not be giant.
1. “She’s an Angel”
I really like the lyric “but everyone was acting normal so I tried to act nonchalant”. That is real snappy. The slide part makes me think of the minimal slide accent in “Big Country” by the Talking Heads and I like it. I believe it’s a drum machine on this track which I’m not stoked about but I don’t think they actually had a drummer. The vocals are very unique which I do like. Is that why the Elder so loves this band, the quirky strange and different sounds?
2. “Istanbul, Not Constantinople”
So again, my first experience of this song was on the Tiny Toons, the sort of updated version of Looney Tunes of days past. It’s got like this polkaish beat with the occasional cool heavy rock beat. I love the pseudo middle eastern howling as it sounds exactly like it is, a white guy trying to sound middle eastern. I also love the violin, very cool sounding and pretty intricate. I wonder if one of the Johns plays it. Is the point of this song the different names of the same thing we give locations or is it just an irreverant song excuse to use polka sounds and a sick violinist? I’m not sure but I do know I like “Smells like Teen Spirit”…at least I think so.
Before I even listen to this song, I want to say that the writing behind it sounds to be in a similar vein to “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan. I have a complicated love for Bobby D (but that is for another day). Their similarity is that Dylan’s song was said by the man himself to actually be the first lines of many different songs he never got to write. (Check out the Leon Russell cover, it’s awesome and features Clapton on guitar). The TMBG song consists of twenty song ideas all in the same song. It is very eclectic and I bet each segment could have been a good song but all of this in one song is a lot for me. Too much to digest even so I can’t say I really like this tune. It does provide another point of evidence as to why the Elder likes them. They don’t get a genre and have many different influences and ideas. Lastly, I remember my brother and his friends all laughing hysterically and saying “Please pass the milk please” around our kitchen table to one point. I giggled when I heard that part in nostalgia for a past laugh I didn’t understand.
4. “Road Movie to Berlin”
More accordion jams on this. The sound is actually growing on me now and I enjoy hearing it. This song is a little slow for me but the lyrics are really good, clearly another reason the Elder so enjoys the band as he is such a literary person himself, This does make me think of gypsy music which is certainly predominant in the little towns and places of ill repute in Europe (or at least I’’m told). At least one movie and multiple people have told me that gypsies are sort of like carnies mixed with trailer park residents, the latter of which I’m very familiar with and of whom I have a generally high opinion. The only reason I say this is I recently scolded some young people for talking trash about people who lived in trailers and explained that some people just chose to live there for convenience and affordability and they don’t deserve a stigmatising for this choice. I digress terribly but I don’t have much to say about this song. It’s short. Does the Elder love the accordion and thus gypsies?
5. “Snail Shell”
I remember my brother’s friend whom he now refers to as “the lead singer” and how he often shoved me into closets. One day I will find this man and will get my retribution but for now, I will say that this is close to my favorite song so far, besides “Particle Man” which I already liked. It almost sounds like funky Soundgarden at times. Were they trying to harness some type of grunge sound or just filtering what was going on through their own unique personalities? This is much more of a mainstream sound than any of the other songs so far and I like that they can do that too. As far as I can tell, this was not a big hit for them but it should have been.
6.”New York City”
The bells annoy me but the beat is good in a sort of punkish way. If I liked punk rock, which I don’t normally with many exceptions, The lyrics are cool, sort of giving an outline of NYC but all in all, I don’t like this song.
7.”Don’t lets Start”
I can get with this song, mostly because I clearly remember my brother’s band covering it when I was in elementary school. As much crap as my bro and his band mates gave me, I thought they were the coolest people on earth so naturally I loved this song as it was probably the only one I knew that they played. How could I not, his room was right next to mine and he must have listened to it a million times.Catchy too, I’m surprised it was not a bigger hit. I like the nonsensical scatting a lot too.
8.”Alienation is for the Rich”
I like this song a lot, naturally as it’s definitely got a country side to it. I also don’t think they necessarily are mocking country music…maybe they actually like country music
I don’t think I will ever love this band the way that my brother does. I do have a better understanding of why he likes them. They have an extremely eclectic sound and equally intelligent lyrics. No other band sounds like them and that to me is more important than anything else in the music I like the most. My favorite band, Primus, is very similar in that they a have specific sound that doesn’t resemble anything else. I am happy I understand my brother’s love of this band and hope he someday understands my own love for my favorite band. On a final note, I still don’t get the accordion…..but it does sound pretty cool.