Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Rock Solid: They Might Be Giants

"If you only own one album by They Might Be Giants it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

I suppose it's fitting. They Might Be Giants' music often baffles even the most esoterically-minded listeners, so it shouldn't be any surprise that the process of discovering their best and worst albums has been a convoluted one. Their Rock Bottom selection, The Spine, gave me consternation because, though it was lowest-ranked, no one really had anything bad to say about it. Their best album, similarly, turns out to be something I'd have never expected.

My best guess, pre-research, would have 1990's Flood. This is where and when TMBG made their biggest, most lasting, cultural impact (see Instanbul (Not Constantinople), Birdhouse in Your Soul, and Particle Man for further details). But critics and fans didn't agree with me, or each other. Rather than give a confusing narrative, I'll do this bullet-style for the 5 albums that tied one another for the top spot.
  • Their 1986 debut, They Might Be Giants, got 4.5 stars from the All Music Guide and 4.5 from Amazon.com reviewers.
  • 1988's Lincoln got the same.
  • 2002's No! got the same.
  • 2008's Here Come the 123s got 4 stars from AMG and 5 stars from Amazon.com reviewers.
  • 2008's Here Comes Science got the same.
What to make of this? Well, 3 of the 5 are children's albums, which skews the results somewhat, especially in the Amazon reviews (basically, you've got kids and parents writing these reviews, not necessarily fans of the band as a pop entity). That leaves us with the first two records. Since they're tied, we look next at the percentage of 5 star reviews on Amazon. In a surprise upset, the group's debut wins it, with 82% to Lincoln's 76%.

(If you're wondering where Flood ended up, it's in 6th place, with a combined 8.5 stars (4 from AMG, 4.5 from Amazon). More on this later.)

Anyway, They Might Be Giants may be the unworthiest Rock Solid I've seen yet. In other cases I may not have agreed with the selection, but I could see the argument. This one, not so much.

Even so, let's give it a fighter's chance.

AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine is brief and superficial in his summation of the album. The best he can muster is a back-handed compliment: "While there are a lot of geeky jokes and barely developed ideas scattered throughout the album, the sheer kaleidoscopic array of styles is intoxicating."

As for the Amazon.com reviewers, Ryan Hennessy seems to be speaking directly to my skepticism about the album: "So for all of its creativity, wacky but sometimes poignant lyrics and off the wall fun level this is a great album, often overlooked even by TMBG fans." Antiphilosopher adds that the album is, "Bouncy, catchy, upbeat psychosis in musical form!" The Intengenius asserts that They Might Be Giants is "probably the most bizarre album they ever released, [it] literally stomps all over the place, flitting from genre to genre almost flawlessly." And Erin asks, hopefully rhetorically or the answer is going to be a long one, "Who doesn't like a band that consists of two dorks making weird music?"

But several reviewers undermine their 5 star reviews with qualifiers. Mighty Bjorn says, "If you're new to the band, Flood is a better jumping on point because it's not quite as strange." Okay, he's not saying Flood is better, though. However, witness this anonymous review: "[They Might Be Giants] is also a good place to start listening to John and John, surpassed only by Flood, the most friendly of all TMBG efforts." Kari the Digimon Princess puts it more bluntly: "Now I do like They Might Be Giants but this is crude compared to Flood or Lincoln."

Relistening to They Might Be Giants, I am struck by the audacity of it. It's no surprise that the band were hits with college radio first, because music didn't sound like this in 1986. It's the aural equivalent of watching a performance art piece by created by a schizophrenic. The band's identity at this point was based on having no real identity. They were (and are, though to a lesser degree) absurdists. But that didn't necessarily make for great songs. Sure, there are standouts, such as She's An Angel, Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head, She Was a Hotel Detective, and Don't Let's Start, but a lot of the album goes over the novelty line (Toddler Hiway, anyone?). To me, it's a fun listen, but far from their best work.

Many fans would make a strong case for their second album, Lincoln, to take the top spot. I see more merit in that. The band kept its eclecticism and added better songwriting (Ana Ng, Purple Toupee, The World's Address, Santa's Beard, Shoehorn with Teeth, Snowball in Hell). Even so, I think Flood should have been the one. It's They Might Be Giants' time capsule album, the one people are gonna remember. And, to my ear, it has fewer clunkers than Lincoln. In 2009, Rolling Stone did a track-by-track guide to Flood and called it the band's "signature" work. (This was, by the way, a complete  reversal from the original 1990 review that the magazine published. In that review David Browne used the following words to describe Flood: "sophmoric", "novelty", "smug", "disposable", "facile", "throwaway", "grating", "glib" and "campy".)

Do you see what I mean about things being complicated? To add fuel to the fire, my personal favorites haven't even entered the conversation yet. Flood was my first TMBG album, and I'll always have a soft spot for it, but Apollo 18 (1992) and John Henry (1994) are the soundtracks of my formative years. The first time (of six) that I saw them in concert was the John Henry tour, and the songs from that album are still rattling around in my brain. Apollo 18 is the true bridge between what the band were (genre-hopping pop outsiders) and what they became (quirky pop-rock), and, at least until this year's Join Us, their last album to truly straddle that line without going too far one way or the other.

So what to conclude? I'll present it in the form of a comprehension question, with multiple choice answers.

a) They Might Be Giants have made so many good albums that they even fans and critics can't agree on which one is best.
b) David Browne is a strident, humorless sort of fellow.
c) Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.
d) All of the above.