February 24, 2005

They Might Be Giants

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When I first heard that They Might Be Giants had a new album out, I jumped at the chance to review it. I had heard nothing but good things about this band and figured this would be a great opportunity to check out their sound. Unbeknownst to me, their latest studio release, Here Come the ABCs, is a children’s album.

While I’m sure you can imagine my initial disappointment upon purchasing this CD, creatively adorned with pictures of sock puppets, it turns out that this was the most refreshing listen I have had in quite some time. The lyrics are quirky and humorous, the music is original and the song craft is nothing less than top notch.

I discovered that the band consists simply of the two songwriters, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, affectionately referred to by fans as “the Johns.” They employ the technique popularized by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in the 1970s: write songs as if you were a full-sized band and then find the best musicians around to play all the instruments that you cannot. TMBG effectively uses guest guitarists, drummers, horn players and vocalists to create a well-produced, polished record.

The album begins simply with an 11-second introduction, consisting of a two-part harmony over a sampled drum beat and accompanied by children. “Alphabet of Nations,” in which the names of 26 countries are sung alphabetically from Algeria to Zimbabwe, demonstrates immediately that TMBG has overlooked no detail. Linnell launches into a rollicking piano melody, followed by the names of the nations sung twice. The difference in sound that results from the band’s choice to sing the two vocal lines an octave apart rather than in a standard harmony is immediately noticeable, and gives me an understanding of why TMBG’s sound is thought of as original and eclectic.

The sounds on the album vary tremendously, running the gamut from funk to folk. My favorite tune, “D is for Drums” consists of old school funk in the background, while the Johns discuss what the letter D stands for in call-and-answer vocal banter.

The lyrics throughout are cute, yet informative, and more often than not, rather funny. “L M N O” is about how this letter combination is often mistaken for one letter while “Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?” is a quasi-historical take on a perplexing quandary, with guest Robin Goldwasser adding lead vocals.

The cheesiness in the album is abundant, but it never manages to overshadow the ingenuity in the creative and production process. The bottom line is that TMBG have released a record that appeals to all ages; a rare feat in today’s recording industry. Music like this remains on the cutting edge and continues to push the envelope.

Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Contributor