They Might Be Giants - Flood Music Album Reviews

They Might Be Giants - Flood Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the breakthrough LP from a pair of proud eccentrics whose arcane preoccupations and clever songwriting made them unlikely stars.

What did it mean to be a rock star in 1990? Whatever the answer might be, They Might Be Giants were decidedly not it. The Brooklyn duo’s style was more turtlenecks than leather, their voices nasal and not especially alluring, their erratic dance moves more like the mechanics of wind-up toys. One of them played the accordion. On their first record, they gave a famous Who lyric a sincere moralistic spin: “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die.” Yet those same uncool qualities were the exact things that made They Might Be Giants total rock stars. Their ability to grab listeners with sharp, catchy songwriting was never more evident than on 1990’s Flood, where their expansive imagination was matched by major label money. The underdogs always find a way.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell had both come of age in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a cozy Boston suburb close enough to Walden Pond that Thoreau could hear the ringing of the town’s church bells during his afternoon meditations. As high schoolers, the pair worked together on the school newspaper and bonded over a mutual interest in comics books, the Ramones, and experimenting with Flansburgh’s tape machine. In 1981, the two Johns reconnected as young adults after moving into the same Brooklyn apartment—Flansburgh was there to study printmaking at Pratt, and Linnell was playing keys in a band called the Mundanes. The limitlessness of punk had blossomed into the brightness of new wave, and the pair’s quirky preoccupations made them natural bedfellows within a burgeoning New York City scene.

At the time, New York was just emerging from the economic stagnation and crime surge that battered the city in the 1970s; 1981 would turn out to be one of its most violent years. But there was potential in the disintegration. The Johns began working on music together in earnest, with Flansburgh on guitar, Linnell on accordion, and a drum machine. The absence of a formal rhythm section was liberating: While they might not have been able to afford an orchestra, they could program one on a computer. (Besides, lugging an organ to gigs was exhausting, as they found out at their first show: a Sandinista rally in Central Park.)

Over in the East Village, performers as eclectic as feminist artist Karen Finley—known for intense monologues about the politics of the female body over pounding disco beats—and Steve Buscemi’s comedy duo could find an audience. In between day jobs as a graphic designer and a darkroom technician, They Might Be Giants began honing their own act, which often included homemade props—like a massive stick with a microphone attached to one end, which Flansburgh would pound for percussion. But equally intriguing were the Giants’ offstage practices. In the early ’80s, after Flansburgh’s equipment was stolen from his apartment and Linnell broke his wrist while working as a bike messenger, the pair began recording songs to Flansburgh’s answering machine. They shared this material not by seeking out a label, but by placing ads for what they called Dial-a-Song—named after the Christian hotline Dial-a-Prayer—in The Village Voice classifieds section. Long before music was readily available online, the duo leveraged a landline to release new songs daily and play them directly to listeners in and beyond New York.

This underground momentum eventually landed the Giants their first major press notice in the pages of People—yes, the celebrity rag—where their 1985 demo cassette received a glowing review. “These guys should definitely change their name,” quipped writer Michael Small. “It won’t be long before they really are giants.” It was a prescient prediction. Soon after, They Might Be Giants released their self-titled debut, a hyperactive collection that bounced from punk to polka as it folded in references to the off-kilter ephemera that filled the two Johns’ real lives: the 1954 Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz film The Long, Long Trailer, a coworker with Elephant Man disease, Burt Bacharach. But the album’s incisive core saved it from collapsing into novelty. “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful,” goes the infectious “Don’t Let’s Start.” “Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.”

Around this time, the Giants started working with a young Nickelodeon director named Adam Bernstein. Their video for “Don’t Let’s Start” captures the band’s oddball showmanship: They perform a jerky, synchronized dance routine alongside props like chimney flue hats and cutouts of progressive newspaper editor William Allen White (the two former high school newspaper staffers would adopt his cheery visage as their group’s unofficial mascot). Inexplicably, “Don’t Let’s Start” entered regular rotation on MTV and the band’s album sales skyrocketed. It was a sudden, fantastical leap, but as one TV executive suggested, the Giants’ outsized visual presence made them “the ultimate MTV band.” Their next record, 1988’s Lincoln, pushed them further into the mainstream with the chart-climbing single “Ana Ng,” a love song to a woman who lives halfway around the world. By the time they signed to Elektra in 1989, “we weren’t just weirdos, we were weirdos who’d sold some records,” Flansburgh remarked later. Still, the label was reluctant to let them self-produce their third record, encouraging the band to collaborate with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, known for their work with Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Eventually the parties reached a compromise: Langer and Winstanley would produce the album’s four proposed singles, which ended up consuming two-thirds of the recording budget.

From that disproportionate division of funds to its 19-track length, Flood embraces overflow. The album begins with a 30-second choral theme that asks grandiose questions about the roots of joy (“Why is the world in love again?”) and doom (“Why are the ocean levels rising up?”). The Giants don’t have the answers, but they can offer “a brand new record for 1990…Flood!” In its own earnest weirdness, Flood was a beacon of modernity—an attempt to explore existential quandaries with playfulness.

While a handful of songs used live drums, Flood is indebted to the Casio FZ-1 sampler, which made a huge impression on the Giants when they heard De La Soul deploy it on 1989’s groundbreaking 3 Feet High and Rising. The two Johns used this synthetic genie to record everything from clinking kitchen utensils (“Hot Cha”) to the whiplash of a wet towel (“Minimum Wage”) to a vacuum cleaner (“Hearing Aid,” which also features a guitar solo from no wave icon Arto Lindsay). The sampler was especially heroic in the Giants’ reimagining of the Four Lads’ post-war novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” as a fast-paced romp. The Giants treated “Istanbul” as a tutorial for their new machine, and the song is almost entirely constructed of cobbled-together sounds, including the heavy whistle of blowing on a Coke bottle.

On their first two records, the Giants pulled from a vast stockpile of songs they had written throughout the mid-’80s. But Flood is composed almost entirely of new material that allows ideas to unspool in peculiar, organic ways. On “Whistling in the Dark,” Linnell sinks into his baritone range and spins an absurdist parable about independent thinking. The cartoonishly simple “Particle Man” explores the injustice of natural law through elemental characters and wordplay (“When he’s underwater does he get wet?/Or does the water get him instead?”). Other songs take a more straightforward route: “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” shakes its fist at life’s minor annoyances; “Minimum Wage” conveys its disdain for capitalism in under a minute using only a yodel, a whip crack, and an arrangement that borrows from Sinatra’s version of “Downtown”; the power-chord laden “Your Racist Friend” unambiguously condemns ironic racism (“Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding”).

Nowhere is their imagination more profound than on the album’s whimsical hit, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” written from the standpoint of a night light. Atop a steady snare and a jangly arrangement heavily inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful, this luminous narrator pours out a stream-of-consciousness ramble about, among other things, its family tree. “Though I respect that a lot, I’d be fired if that were my job,” it says to its lighthouse ancestor—“after killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts.” Though the bouncy melody is outwardly chipper, there’s something subtly menacing about “Birdhouse,” from the acerbic trumpet solo to its wavering bridge: “I’m your only friend/I’m not your only friend/But I’m a little glowing friend/But really I’m not actually your friend/But I am.” It’s brilliant, it’s breathless, and boy is it bizarre.

Robert Christgau once described They Might Be Giants’ debut as “an exuberantly annoying show of creative superabundance.” There is indeed something maddening about the band’s ceaseless inventiveness, especially on Flood. What neurons are required to conceive a song about reincarnation told from the perspective of a bag of groceries? How does a rock with a piece of string tied around it become a metaphor for man’s search for meaning? And who the hell thinks to rhyme “infinite” with “Longines Symphonette”? Whimsy was inherent in the band’s name, which makes reference to Don Quixote’s insistence that distant windmills were, in fact, giants. But the pair knew that wit can easily tip into irritation: “Being considered smart alecks is a negativity and we don’t want that,” Linnell told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. So Flood remains humble in spite of its eccentricities. “I can’t understand the appeal of bands that pretend they have the meaning of life on tap,” he once remarked. “We’re the opposite of that confessional school of songwriting; there’s no all-nude revue portion of our show.”

To this point, Flood offers very little insight into its creators beyond their obvious talents. Only one moment toes a biographical line: “John, I’ve been bad/And they’re coming after me,” the pair warble in harmony on “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love.” “Done someone wrong and I fear that it was me.” In spite of this emotional distance, fans eagerly latched on to the band’s strange tales. Was a line like “Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads” a metaphor for conformity, or a sly reference to silicon implants used by sumo wrestlers to meet height requirements? “We’re not really into writing songs with secret meanings or coded messages,” Linnell once clarified. Absurdity is in the eye of the beholder.

Flood was a huge success by the band’s standards, reaching No. 75 on the Billboard 200 and eventually receiving a platinum certification. The songs were blasted across television for all ages: Kids got animated music videos for “Particle Man” and “Istanbul” on the Looney Tunes spin-off Tiny Toon Adventures; teens saw the surrealist “Birdhouse in Your Soul” video on MTV; The Tonight Show treated adults to a zippy live rendition of “Birdhouse.” After years running a shoestring live setup that the Giants themselves parioded as a rhythm section want ad, they finally enlisted a live backing band in support of their next album, 1992’s Apollo 18. The response was immediate: Their shows became “full-out, stage-diving, moshing, party celebrations.” The duo would record all subsequent albums with a full band.

By the mid-’90s alternative music had become big business. After Flood, They Might Be Giants became known as the not-so-elder statesmen of the burgeoning subgenre of geek rock. Though they’ve long resisted the label, their success undeniably opened doors for bands that were not traditionally “cool,” like Ween, Fountains of Wayne, and Weezer; Flood’s surf-rock breakup song “Twisting” could have been a Blue Album B-side. But all bubbles must burst, and the Giants were among the alt-rock bands that found themselves shortchanged in Elektra’s eventual corporate reshuffle. “If something breaks, they don’t see an opportunity to get something going,” Flansburgh said later. “They want to focus on the new record by the Cure.” They Might Be Giants departed Elektra in 1996 and spent the latter half of the decade touring and releasing a handful of compilations and live records. Meanwhile, the band’s cult following kept beating the drum. The Giants were early adopters of the internet, communicating with fans via mailing list and starting a website. In 1998, their coordinated web army rigged People’s annual online reader poll of the world’s most beautiful people, and Linnell landed in the top 10 alongside Madonna and Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio. (He subsequently wrote an op-ed about it for the New York Times.)

In the late 1990s, Flansburgh and Linnell began writing and performing for music and television, winning a Grammy for “Boss of Me,” their theme song for the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. This work paved the way for They Might Be Giants to enter the lucrative world of children’s music. They’d long penned songs about historical figures like 11th American president James K. Polk and “Belgium’s famous painter” James Ensor; in 2002, they released No!, a record geared specifically towards “the entire family.” Children, it turned out, were the perfect audience for strange songs about a man with superhuman taste buds, or the uncertain origins of balloons, and the Giants have pursued this path while continuing to make more adult-oriented albums.

But whether making music for children or their parents, They Might Be Giants have stayed true to the innovative spirit that shines so brightly on Flood. “I’ve often been told that you only can do/What you know how to do well,” Linnell sings on “Whistling in the Dark.” “And that’s be you/Be what you’re like/Be like yourself.” Flood proved they didn’t know any other way.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
They Might Be Giants - Flood Music Album Reviews They Might Be Giants - Flood Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, June 12, 2022 Rating: 5

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