Sunday, March 22, 2009

Album of the Week: They Might Be Giants- John Henry

Radiohead's OK Computer was the album that really got me into the idea of appreciating music as a serious art form, searching for new and interesting sounds and styles, but it was John Henry by They Might Be Giants which originally showed me a world beyond that of the pop music, hip hop, and post-grunge/alternative rock that dominated the radio in the early 90s. Truth be told I only borrowed it from the library because I was trying to find the songs that the children's show Tiny Toon Adventures made into music videos in one episode. It turned out they weren't on John Henry (they were from Flood), but it didn't matter. It blew my fragile little mind that people could write songs about dirt bikes and obscure painters; unlike Weird Al, it wasn't case of someone taking other songs and substituting funny/clever words it. Yeah, these songs weren't totally serious, either, but They Might Be Giants wrote their own tunes. The word play and odd point of view of They Might Be Giants was every bit a formative experience as similarly youthful/odd things like the TV show The Adventures Of Pete & Pete and Weird Al. All of those are surreal, bizarre, intelligent, and have a unique worldview that is very different from the rest of the culture at large. If people are the products of what they 'consume' then I can thank/blame John Henry, Pete & Pete, and Weird Al as much as anything else in my life for the mentality and personality I have.

John Henry seems to be a controversial point in this band's discography. Let's pause and consider what it means for the controversial moment of a band's career to be when they add a full 'rock' band and rely less on accordions and violins. Hmmmm. OK. Perhaps if I was familiar with the entire discography of They Might Be Giants or John Henry wasn't the first thing of their's I had heard, I might be a bit upset at the professional rock band backing the two Johns on this one. But as it is, I feel like the arrangements and "new" instruments add to the music rather than detract. 'AKA Driver' wouldn't have the same punch without the guitar solo. Certainly 'Stompbox'--an ode to guitar effects pedals, I think--would be a bit sillier than it already is. John Henry isn't monochromatically 'rock' though. The band just as often sound almost ska like with horn sections as they do 'rock' with guitar solos, not to mention that subtle but excellent use of organ.

What makes this album so brilliant isn't about the music. It is ultimately the magic gift that They Might Be Giants have for writing addictive pop songs that evoke so many images and ideas, twisting words and phrases into fascinating new shapes. On paper, 'I Should Be Allowed To Think' is a childishly stupid concept: a song about how the titular character isn't allowed to think but should be, subsequently lamenting such things as "I should be allowed to glue my poster" and, after quoting the "I saw the best minds of my generation..." line by Ginsberg, re-working it into "I saw the worst bands of my generation applied by magic marker to dry wall." Listen to this album in your formative years, as I did, and their lyrics and music seem odd and oddly funny--'O, Do Not Forsake Me' was a personal favorite--but some of it becomes, well, oddly profound as much as it is oddly funny when you're older. 'No One Knows My Plan' seems to be about a prisoner planning an escape but manages a reference to the famous philosophical 'allegory of the cave.' And after all these years I finally noticed that 'Dirt Bike' refers to a literal dirt bike but also uses 'dirt bike' as a name for other things, including a band and a fearsome group of bandits. I think...

Flood is the They Might Be Giants album that will live forever but I've got to go with my gut. There are songs on Flood that I like a lot more than the songs on John Henry, but John Henry means more to me and is more consistent. I always end up skipping songs on Flood but I listen all the way through John Henry. It takes something special for an album that's 20 tracks and almost an hour long to keep me in the audience all the way through. Flood is an attractive woman that everyone likes; John Henry is a real, flawed woman who I personally hold dear and adore. I'm not sure what that says about the 10 year old version of me who also loved John Henry but I feel like They Might Be Giants have probably written a song about how the 10 year old version of someone and an adult version of them are both in love with the same woman, so everything is peachy.

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