CD review: They Might Be Giants' No!
By Amy Briggs
TV gives smarty-pants a bum rap. Limned as nerds and mad scientists, they are constantly lampooned as the guys into fogging up their thick glasses and singeing their hair, the ones who frankenstein their bubbling beakers into supernatural compounds– flubber, eggzeronious, the perfect girl(friend), etc... Yet they remain static: Steve Urkels/Screeches of the world, high-waisted misfits always wanting, and never able to obtain, peer acceptance.
The message to kids is simple. Thinking is for pocket-protected outcasts. It's easy to see why so many pre-teens limit themselves to mall patrol and the songs of B. Spears. There's safety in numbers.
But there's hope for the still-impressionable individualists. They Might Be Giants, the learned jingle kings, have poured 16 years of laboratory experience into their first children's album. Aptly named the favorite word of stubborn toddlers, No! promises to prod young cerebellums into some good ole' free-thinking.
Core members John Flansburgh and John Linnell befriended each other in the elementary grades, but waited until several years after high school before forming TMBG. Appropriating their name from a George C. Scott film, the group reveled in Steve Allen-style humor, fusing it to the zippy casiolite sounds of ’80s pop. They enjoyed a long stretch of near-mainstream fame in the early ’90s, until grunge flooded the airwaves, and swept them back to their cult followings, where they remain today.
On their albums, song references invariably include the obscure, forgotten, overlooked, or bizarre... fizzing all over pop culture, from James Polk to James Ensor. TMBG has long held the dual honors of being the only band to 1) sing the word "obsequious", and 2) break the charts with a geographical lesson, in their hit "Istanbul (was once Constantinople)."
And on this latest project, with enough wonder and inquisitiveness to make Emerson blush, TMBG appears to have perfected the process of folding brains into bubblegum. Accordingly, the vocabulary on No! –"mausoleum" and "filament," for example– interests and challenges. The songs are creative and informative, switching perspectives between characters as unlikely as mice and shopping bags.
In "Where Do They Make Balloons?" an ode to origins, the two link places with products such as marmalade, cars, Big Ben, and tulips. "The House at the Top of the Tree" follows a this-is-the-house-that-Jack-built connectivity, with causes and effects nesting as tightly as Russian dolls. The best track, "Robot Parade," portrays a future in which all kids will be little Judy and Elroy Jetsons, driving electric cars and tinkering on cyborgs.
But what solidifies No! is its total lack of corn-and-cheese sermonizing, the heavily sugared morals that make most contemporary children's albums unbearable. As Saints Silverstein and Seuss would say, "Thinking kids just wanna have fun."