They Might Be Giants, Phone Power – TMBG have always been a prolific band, and not everything they do fits all that well onto their albums. Sometimes this doesn’t stop them from including these songs on the albums anyway, but they also released a lot of EPs back in the day. Now that this isn’t much of a thing anymore, they’ll often come out with what might be considered complementary albums. Cast Your Pod to the Wind was released with The Else, and Join Us was soon followed by Album Raises New and Troubling Questions. In 2015, the band brought back their Dial-A-Song service, something they’d been doing since pretty much when they first got started in the early 1980s, but eventually had to stop. I think it was because they could no longer get the answering machines they used to use, but I’m not totally sure. Anyway, for every week of the year, TMBG recorded a new song, and put it up on both the phone and the Internet. Well, okay, some of them weren’t ENTIRELY new, but most were. While many of them showed up on Glean and Why?, there were still some quality songs left over, so this is a collection of some of them.
Apophenia – Is there anything more quintessentially TMBG than a bouncy song about insanity? The title term is the tendency of humans to see meaningful patterns in random data. That’s at least partially what the song is about, with its mentions of streetlights spelling out thoughts and reading tea leaves. The unreliable narrator is worried that a lover he’s not even sure exists will break up with him. Musically, the bass part is particularly catchy, and I like the faster-paced bridge.
I Love You for Psychological Reasons – With this, we go from a catchy John Linnell number with a psychological sort of theme to…the same thing. There’s what I might call a Gilbert and Sullivan kind of vibe to it, in that it has tongue-twisting lyrics and a lot of unusual rhymes. It bears some similarity to “Bee of the Bird of the Moth,” although it’s more up-tempo. And really, isn’t ALL love for psychological reasons when reduced to its simplest form?
To a Forest – A slower song with loungey John Flansburgh vocals and an interesting fuzzy, distorted guitar solo. The lyrics are kind of hippie-ish, and it somewhat reminds me of the Apples in Stereo.
I Am Alone – Not the same as “I’m All Alone,” the one about the cold germ that survived on the Moon. Instead, it’s basically about an identity crisis. Being confused by mirrors seems like a favorite theme of Linnell’s. Okay, the only other song of his I can immediately think of with that theme is “Till My Head Falls Off,” but it’s just a very Linnellian idea. There’s more fuzzy guitar on this one, but it’s not as discordant.
Say Nice Things About Detroit – The title comes from a slogan in the 1970s, part of a campaign to improve Detroit’s image. Laying off fewer people would probably help more. Anyway, the singer here seems to be kind of a sleazy guy who;s been dumped and is having trouble handling it.
Trouble Awful Devil Evil – While perhaps mostly just about how sleep can be a blissful escape from the evils of waking life, I’m particularly interested in the connection to “Reprehensible.” That song has the line “10,000 years of unerasable acts and permanent facts,” while this one has “10,000 years have passed and still I continue to descend.” They’re also both about evil thoughts just before going to sleep, and Linnell plays clarinet on both. This can’t all be a coincidence, can it? I don’t like this song as much as “Reprehensible,” which remains a favorite of mine, but it’s enjoyable enough on its own.
ECNALUBMA – The title is “ambulance” spelled backwards, which is also what’s printed on the front of one when you’re not looking at it through a mirror. I’m sure you already figured out that part, but I like to be thorough. There’s kind of a processional sound to this one, especially in the chorus. The narrator associates religious pageantry with ambulances, and might be purposely injuring himself to have that experience. I’m not sure about that last part, but self-injury to induce spiritual fervor is hardly a new thing.
Daylight – Flansburgh has said this short, rather melancholy song is about addiction. I don’t think I would have figured that out on my own, but it definitely fits, and makes it rather sadder. The line “tilting at tilting things” might well be a reference to Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, which indirectly led to the band’s name.
Sold My Mind to the Kremlin – I’m not exactly sure what this one is about, but there’s a definite Cold War theme to it, with a mention of President Reagan closing down mental hospitals. There’s somewhat of a stream-of-consciousness style to the lyrics. I remember learning about schizophrenia in college psychology (contrary to popular belief, it’s not the same as multiple personalities), and how people afflicted with it often speak in word association. A lot of TMBG songs come across like this as well, which isn’t to say that I think the Johns are schizophrenic, just that I can definitely see them taking some interest in the disorder. Also, I recently mentioned how I like lyrics that mix up seemingly unrelated celebrities and cultural references. The song I was talking about was Tori Amos’ “Happy Phantom,” but it fits this one as well. Someone on the TMBG Wiki mentions that all the references are to the same time period, but I’m not entirely sure that’s fair, as the Manson Family murders occurred in 1969 and Masters of the Universe began in 1982, but it is all stuff from the Johns’ younger years. Flans has said he originally wanted Kimya Dawson to sing on it, but they couldn’t finish the collaboration in time. I like Flans singing it just fine, but I do hope the Kimya version is still in the pipeline.
It Said Something – A keyboard-heavy song about being awakened by a mysterious voice, with some quite dreamlike lyrics. The impression is that the voice scared the narrator to the point that he doesn’t want to sleep again. It gives me the sense of waking up from a weird dream and thinking it was meaningful, but not really knowing how.
Impossibly New – A pretty traditional and sweet love song in many ways, although it also compares the narrator to a smokestack and rhymes “campfire” with “vampires,” probably not all that typical for such numbers. There’s kind of a nostalgic vibe to it, and the smokestack might refer to old factories that are no longer in operation, like the burn smell factory in “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head.” Both Johns sing together on this one.
I’ll Be Haunting You – A fairly straightforward ghost story about a guy coming back to haunt someone for revenge, but it has a few unusual lyrics that might or might not be references to something specific. For instance, why would flipping a switch guarantee someone would become a ghost, and why specify the year 1993? It’s kind of campy, really, with a lot of echo and a psychedelic flute solo.
Got Getting Up So Down – Like “Out of a Tree,” this is an extended version of a song the band wrote and performed for a Dunkin Donuts commercial. I appreciate that TMBG tends to run the musical gamut even when it comes to jingles, with this one being a funk sort of thing. Still, was this really worth inclusion on the record?
What Did I Do to You? – The electronic percussion gives it kind of an interesting sound. The lyrics are kind of bizarre, but basically about a theft. And the idea of cast-off appendages making phone calls is the kind of delightfully gory absurdity that the Johns can do so well.
Shape Shifter – This reminds me quite a bit of “Monsters of Mud,” although I think I might like it better. Not only does it have a similar structure, but both are about the world being invaded by some force that scares the narrator. It doesn’t as much of the Beach Boys style vocal harmony, though. It’s basically about someone being scared of how the world keeps changing and has become unfamiliar. The wiki has an interpretation saying it could be about transphobia, and while such might not have been the intention, it does fit the line “I accepted what you were and then everything changed.” Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about physical change.
Bills, Bills, Bills – Of all the songs TMBG has chosen to cover, I’m not sure anyone would have expected something by Destiny’s Child. Beth used to bring up this song occasionally because she was amused by the phrase “automo-bills.” There was actually an automotive shop near where we used to live called AutomoBill’s, but I don’t know if there was a connection. TMBG’s take on it isn’t particularly hammy or anything, but it’s just so different from what they normally do that it seems a little ridiculous. But then, ridiculous can be good sometimes. Incidentally, the Puppini Sisters included a few lines of this song in the “Material Girl Medley” on their latest album. I wonder why it’s making a comeback now.
Black Ops (Alternate Version) – The song was originally released on Nanobots, and this version is much faster and more rocking. It’s cool to hear, although I think the other version better demonstrates the irony.
I Wasn’t Listening – Another one of the many jingles the Johns have written over the years for Dial-A-Song, a little more developed than most of them. It’s pretty fun.