Friday, May 27, 2011

They Might Be Giants- Flood

We sometimes come to music via strange pathways, don't we? Perhaps an older sister introduces you to the Beatles via a mixtape she made for a family road trip when you were 8. Perhaps a car commercial with a rather lovely and melancholic song revealed Nick Drake to you. Perhaps, too, like many who are around my age you came to the music of They Might Be Giants via the children's cartoon Tiny Toon Adventures. It's sad that I was unaware for years that the animated videos for 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople)' and 'Particle Man' weren't just oddly catchy jingles thrown together by the animators of the show. I eventually borrowed John Henry from my local library because I remembered the band's unique name... an album which, it turned out, didn't have those songs on it. Maybe they weren't the band I was thinking of? Rest assured that years later, thanks to the magic of the Internet and the way people catalogue every minute detail of everything ever, I eventually found myself at the end of another strange pathway and Flood was waiting.

You may have done some Internet research about this album, too. Metacritic will do you no good, I'm afraid. And while you could check out Flood on Wikipedia, you'd soon be confused by the mixed-to-negative reviews listed on its entry despite the text stating it is a fan favorite. This is because:
A) It's hard to track down a broad sampling of reviews from 1990
B) Most professional music critics for big magazines, especially around that time, are/were a bunch of idiots with weirdly narrow tastes
C) has some decent writing, but it's mostly filled with iconoclasts who underrate some of the best records of all time, not to mention they frequently praise or dismiss albums with pithy insouciance. See their review of Factory Showroom for a particularly egregious example.

Enough grousing. Let me go ahead and say that Flood is as perfect and as perfectly realized an album as has ever been recorded. The surrealism and strangeness of the first two They Might Be Giants records were tempered a bit, bringing the band's imagination and songwriting skills to their closest coupling. Beginning with one of the band's patented self-referential tunes in the literally introductory track, 'Theme From Flood', They Might Be Giants whip through a strange parade of tunes, ideas, characters, and philosophies, from a nightlight's advice/ode to its owner ('Birdhouse In Your Soul'), an oblique commentary on colonization (or anyway, that's what I think 'Women & Men' is about), a short cowboy ditty wherein someone bellows “minimum wage!” before a whip cracks, and, uhm, whatever the circular song structure of the brilliant piano duet 'Dead' is about (groceries and mortality?). To say that Flood is perfect may seem a tad hyperbolic, however, considering that there is absolutely nothing I would add or remove to make this record better, I think it's a fair claim. Even Flood's lesser songs, the uncharacteristically preachy 'Racist Friend' and the 60s organ-led, lovelorn bitterness of 'Twisting', contribute to the overall flow and feel of the album, especially considering the songs which precede and follow them.

Indeed, Flood was the beginning of the era which saw They Might Be Giants moving away from the almost abrasive weirdness and absurdity of their first two albums into more quirky and cerebral material, not to mention employing a full band in studio and on stage, much to the chagrin of some fans. Yet that doesn't make it the sort of transitional, unsure record which one might expect. It's telling that the band have sometimes performed the album in its entirety as a self-styled cover band, dubbed Sapphire Bullets. Such an act demonstrates a real sureness and awareness on the band's part of the love people have for this music and it's unique to see a group play to that. One might even consider it a precursor to the way the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals led to the Don't Look Back concerts, in which bands perform their 'classic' albums.

But I digress. I hesitate to make claims about definitiveness when it comes to music, but you could hardly do better than Flood if you only want or need one album from They Might Be Giants. As either an introductory tour of their odd (and oddly catchy) art-pop world or your only visit down this strange pathway, Flood is as good as it gets.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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