“No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful/ everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful” (from “Don’t Let’s Start”)
1986 was an odd year in music. The pop charts were dominated by Whitney Houston and Madonna (the mellifluous fluff continued with albums by Wham! And Lionel Ritchie); Rock screamers like Great White, Metallica and Bon Jovi released successful albums; old reliables like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Talking Heads kept keeping on. Hip-hop was starting to make noise even on the mainstream charts (Run DMC and the Beastie Boys released albums). Soon-to-be central names of alt-rock were releasing some of their best work (Camper Van Beethoven, Sonic Youth) while the New Wave wavered on (the Smiths, and the Cure).
We begged our parents for long-distance calling permission....
Then, in November, a duo from Massachusetts living in Brooklyn and acting as the house band of a performance art space released an album made up of songs largely recorded on a 4 track in their apartment. The album scored new fans on college radio stations and introduced the world to the unique and unmistakable sound of They Might Be Giants—a collection of rock songs and strange experiments built of a guitar, a synthesizer, some, accordion, and two slightly nasal, but melodic voices.
Almost anyone who has heard TMBG can recognize their early sound—most songs (with the exception of short, strange pieces) are structured as conventional rock songs with instrumentation created from invention and necessity (all drum and bass tracks are programmed; the duo John Flansburgh and John Linnell tend to favor, especially on their early work, odd sounds and occasional samples).
While the music can seem off, it is the lyrics that people usually remember. TMBG have made the claim that their lyrics are fit to the music and don’t have deeper meanings. This can seem to be the case on some of the songs on their debut album. The overt simplicity of songs like “Rabid Child” (“Rabid child stays at home, talks on a CB / Truckers pass calling out their handles to the kid”) or “Toddler Hiway”( “In the mornin’ sun ’round seven o’clock / the parking lot fills around Toys-R-Us / And my little girl, she will get away / Ride her bike down Toddler Hiway”) may be called into question if you ponder too long on the possible meanings of the lyrics of “Puppet Head” (“Quit my job down at the carwash / Didn’t have to write no-one a good-bye note / That said, “The check’s in the mail, and / I’ll see you in church, and don’t you ever change“). This last song, if contemplated for its dissatisfaction with working life, could almost be seen as a representation of the dysfunctional relationship between the self and the external world—a song of protest and surrender. (And I, of course, don’t worry about what artists claim for the meaning of their work; once they let it go, it is ours.)
What marks the collection of songs out most remarkably, however, is generic experimentation. “(She was a) Hotel Detective” and “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” are interesting rock jaunts whereas songs like “Toddler Hiway”, and “Hideaway Folk Family” feature the duo’s singing and arrangement abilities (considerable on both counts; the harmonies throughout the album are memorable). Other tracks, like “I hope that I get old before I die” and “Alienation” flirt with the country/folk side of popular music while songs like “Boat of Car” feature early (and interesting) versions of sampling.