For those of you who do not know, my day job is supervising a trail crew with the American Conservation Experience. I travel around to different national parks, and other government lands, doing trail construction and maintenance. This means that I spend about 200 days per year in a tent. I have developed quite a morning routine in my nomadic travels.
I wake up each day at about 4:50am and make myself some coffee in my tent. Before I go to bed each night, I line out my arsenal of coffee paraphernalia, like a heroin addict with his needles, tubes, etc. I make sure I’ve got my French press, water bottle, jet boil stove and, of course, my fair trade organic hipster coffee. When the digital rooster in my alarm clock crows, I roll over, still in my sleeping bag and spark up my stove. When the coffee is ready, I sit up in my sleeping bag like a paraplegic caterpillar. I sip my coffee, read some comics, write, or simply listen to some music.
On one particular morning I was listening to They Might Be Giants‘ new B-sides album, “Album Raises New and Troubling Questions”. On shuffle, a new version of the song “Dirt Bike” came up. The clean, almost exuberant, horns from the previous version have been replaced by a more full but slightly looser horn section and the lead parts now have a sort of sad vibrato. It’s a bold and simple piece played with a slight tremble, which evokes the image of a parade of sobbing clowns.
I was really struck by it, and this is just one of dozens of times that a track by They Might Be Giants has hit me like a ton of bricks. John Linnel and John Flansberg write music that seems almost disposable on the first listen, but there’s something that keeps you coming back. Then one day a song will just ‘click’ with you and you fall head over heels in love. It is a sudden and almost overwhelming realization.
Each song is a painting on display, each album a new installation in the museum of They Might Be Giants. You can take each song at its surface level, its literal translation. Or you can break down every idea, pulling on each thread of Dada-esque logic until they become knotted in your head.
Most creative people can tell you about a moment in their creative process when the art seems to take over. A writer may find their characters speaking words on their own. A guitar player, who usually slaves over every note and chord progression, may find a song writing itself. It’s a very bizarre feeling; your creative efforts become super-charged, your mind focuses like a laser beam. At the same time it’s loose, you’re not concerned with details. You are simply letting it pour out of you. I have had this experience drawing, and to some extent writing, but never while listening to music; that is, not until one particular evening listening to They Might Be Giants.
About a year ago, I was camping in Ventana Wilderness. One night I was listening to the album “John Henry” while trying to relax after a hard day’s work. I had heard the album a couple times, but had never really listened to it. This time was different; as I listened more and more intently, I seemed to almost tap into Linnel and Flansberg’s creative energy. The album began to deconstruct itself. Everything made sense. My mind was taking what was presented and filling in the blanks. I was tripping balls. I became entranced; “A dotted line surrounding the mind of a self called nowhere,” as Linnel writes on one of the album’s top cuts.
Ball-tripping and art museums aside, They Might Be Giants are simply a lot of fun. Their music takes the form of a vaudevillian pop act that is catchy and uplifting, and the subject matter can be very light.
They have written 3 educational albums aimed at children and their hipster parents. Contradictory to their “kids’ albums,” death, regret, and the sabotaging nature of the subconscious are common themes in their music, with lyrics like “everyone dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.” No matter what the lyrics, They Might Be Giants retain a youthful, gregarious attitude in their music, and a willingness to tackle any subject matter with their unique art-pop style. In one of their early catchy singles, “Ana Ng,” Linnel sings a delightful catchy tune about the cold war. “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular to the name of this town in a desk-top globe, exit wound in a foreign nation.”
Their latest album, “Join Us”, is one of their most focused to date. It feels a little more like an album written by a band, rather than the image I usually get of a solitary John Linnel compulsively writing music in a tree house that he has fashioned to look like a submarine or jail cell. The album is catchy and a little lighter than some of their other efforts, and two Johns make no point of hiding their pop roots.
The album’s name and cover sum up the band perfectly. The album’s title, Join Us, is a friendly invitation to take a trip with the band. The cover art depicts a purple hearse with monster truck wheels, which reminds the audience that death is unstoppable.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bryan West. They do not represent the opinions of Quote Your Pulse or any affiliated bands. Please direct all hate mail to Bryan.WestNCCC@gmail.com. For more Creative Emissions you can log on to Bryan’s Tumblr