They Might Be Giants, My Murdered Remains – Even though TMBG’s albums tend to have a lot of songs, there are also quite a few they record that don’t make the cut, many of which are still quite good or at least strangely fascinating. Back in the day, they released a lot of EPs, but since that’s largely obsolete these days, they instead tend to follow every major studio album release with at least one collection of rarities. This one was named after a line from “Mrs. Bluebeard,” a song on I Like Fun. I believe they mentioned that was considered as the name of that album, but it makes more sense for this, as these are the remaining songs. They’d released most of these on the online version of their Dial-A-Song service, with accompanying videos. It has sixteen songs, but early copies included a bonus disc of sixteen more, some of them DAS stuff from 2015 that hadn’t been otherwise released. I’m going to look at the contents of both here, doing my usual thing for TMBG albums of discussing every song, even if it’s sometimes only one sentence.
The Communists Have the Music – A very clever and upbeat song with a lot of unusual rhymes and clever turns of phrase. It seems a little ambiguous lyrically, specifically whether it’s about someone naive who advocates a political philosophy for shallow reasons (in this case the quality of the music), or more of a manifesto in terms of how some of the best music tends to be radical and speak truth to power. I sort of relate it to “I Should Be Allowed to Think,” where the narrator is applying grand philosophical ideas to something personal and not that significant. John Linnell has said the song was inspired by a comment someone in his high school made comparing two bands, where one had the power and the other the tunes.
I’ve Been Seeing Things – This one reminds me a lot of “Erase,” particularly in the part about the violin case. Listening to them both back-to-back, it’s not as close as I originally thought; this one is a little harder, with its fuzzy guitar bits. There’s definitely a similarity there, though. Lyrically, it seems to be about someone assuming everything he sees has some great significance.
Gudetama’s Busy Days – Gudetama is a Sanrio character, a lazy egg starring in a series of animated shorts. Since John Flansburgh’s wife, Robin Goldwasser, once told my wife that she liked Sanrio (Beth had a Chococat purse at the time), I have to suspect she might have had something to do with the title. It also includes the phrase “Mountain Girl,” which is how Flans introduced Robin at a show a few years ago when she was dressed in overalls and had flowers in her hair. The question remains as to whether the song is actually about the Sanrio character or just borrows the name. It’s about someone down on their luck, which seems to fit the descriptions I’ve read of Gudetama. I like the line about selling explanations to the wall.
Dog – Musically, this song is made up of a bunch of altered piano samples, giving it kind of a jazzy feel. Like the preceding song, there’s a definite sense of ennui to this, that the dogs in question (I guess there’s more than one, since both male and female pronouns are used) have more or less given up on life. Looking a little closer, it seems like they’ve both screwed a lot of people over, but it didn’t benefit them much in the end.
Ampersand – The basic idea is something that I’ve heard done a few times before, that of turning normally unspoken things like punctuation into words. It’s a wistful love song, short but pretty sweet. The musical parts make me think of trucking or something, sort of a country driving thing.
Applause Applause Applause – Like many other bands before (and after) them, TMBG occasionally comments on the nature of performance. In both other songs and stage banter, they’ve commented on the idea that applause is a form of payment to the band. One line I’ve heard them say on occasion is “Your applause is his oxygen!”, and maybe the song derived from that. It’s funny, sort of a self-parody, but that saxophone sounds genuinely sad. There’s a video that appears to be a live studio session (that sounds kind of oxymoronic but really isn’t) with only Linnell on vocals and sax, Flans on acoustic guitar, and Mary Beller on cymbals.
The Neck Rolls Aren’t Working – Another song about that favorite topic of the band even when they were young themselves, aging. The narrator is obviously older than Linnell himself, who was only two when John Glenn first orbited the Earth. There’s a sense of futility created through repetition of the same words: “That air horn is blowing away the clear thinking that’s needed to stop the loud air horn” and “destroying my chances of wrecking any last hope of destroying any last hope that I had.” I suppose the neck rolls that aren’t working are exercises, although there is some potential ambiguity there.
Selectionist – An instrumental with a lot of electronic effects that sounds like it should probably accompany a dream sequence.
I Haven’t Been Right Yet – A collaborative effort between both Johns that started with a simple chord progression Linnell came up with. The image I get from the lyrics is that of a rambling guy sitting on a bench, but maybe there’s more to it than that.
Unctuous Robot – I can’t really think of much to say about this one, although I like the title. It’s a pretty good song, but not one that really stands out.
The Bullies – While the song could potentially be about any kind of oppressive forces in society, there are some clear similarities to earlier Flansburgh songs about the grind and corporate culture, particularly in the general distaste for clichéd phrases. “There’s no there there” is the same sort of overused and largely meaningless phrase as “the check’s in the mail, and I’ll see you in church, and don’t you ever change” or “have a nice day, you want it when?” Musically, it’s quite synthesizer-heavy, and I like the bridge with just acoustic guitar and vocals.
Tractor – I think it’s interesting that Linnell sings this in light of something I remember reading about the Johns, how Flans is a cat person and Linnell doesn’t get the appeal of cats. The character here is someone who feels no affection for other humans, but does for an equally aloof cat. It seems like people who don’t have cats are often unaware that they they can be quite affectionate; it’s just generally on their terms, not yours. The central metaphor, “heart of a tractor,” is interesting because a tractor is not just unfeeling, but also a moving object with some force to it. The bridge introduces some other unusual and confusing metaphors: the soul of a treadmill, the eye of a merchant marine, the stomach of an arachnid, and the spine of a vending machine.
Rowboat Mayor – This is another minimal-sounding song with a bizarre title. The instrumentation has kind of a Chinese sound, sometimes accompanied by Flans humming. The concept of a rowboat mayor sounds kind of like the proverbial big fish in a small pond, someone arrogant about his small amount of power. But then, the song says that not only is the character not a rowboat mayor, but that it’s not even a real thing (shades of “Shoehorn with Teeth”). So maybe it’s just about a guy with an overinflated ego. I checked the interpretations page at This Might Be a Wiki, and the one interpretation there posits that the narrator is a drunk guy complaining about someone he finds annoying, which I think does fit. What I think is particularly interesting is how the song plays on its own not-quite-rhymes, pronouncing “later” and “potatoes” to sort of rhyme with “mayor.” It kind of makes me think of Ogden Nash.
Tick Tick Tick Tick – Is this about the same tick that put them in a predicament? It’s another song about aging and the passage of time. The lyrics sometimes seem to be about an insect, but as is often the case, the metaphors aren’t entirely consistent.
Last Wave (alt. version) – I wrote about this song in the context of its appearance on I Like Fun, but I’m not sure I knew about its origins back then. It’s said this was written to sync up with the video for Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” on mute, sort of a Bad Lip Reading kind of thing. It’s not like it’s totally new for them, either; “Complete Paranoia” was written to sync with their own video for “Snail Shell.” This is a demo version of the song, weirder and considerably less polished than the I Like Fun version.
Best Regrets – Not much to say about this breakup song, although I like that the ending line is “you even tolerated slang.”
And now, More Murdered Remains:
This Is Only Going to Go One Way – There’s a bouncy feel to this one, perhaps an inevitable result of a song largely based around toy piano and tambourine. The lyrics are amusing in parts with the ghost pirate and the magician (even though he does kill himself), but also quite dark with their references to a couple where one member wishes physical harm on the other, but they still stay together, like they don’t have a choice.
Prepare – Another passage-of-time song with a bit of a twist in that it’s about concentrating on individual seconds.
No Cops – A live opening bit with Corn Mo singing and playing accordion, which accounts for the circus-like sound. It’s similar to other introductions in that it’s darkly humorous, presenting the band as hostages.
Starry Eyes – Recorded for a compilation of covers of seventies songs, it was originally performed by the Records in 1978. I don’t think I’d heard the original before, but it’s the sort of catchy power pop number that I tend to enjoy. The cover is very close, and I think Flansburgh’s voice is perfect for it. It sounds like both Johns are having a lot of fun with it.
The Velvet Ape – This one sounds very theatrical, sort of a seventies epic kind of thing, that sounds like it’s about a pillow fight.
Tesla (2 4 6 8 Remix) – I’m not sure why they’re releasing so many versions of this song, unless it’s to make up for putting “The Edison Museum” on a few different records. It’s accompanied by what sounds like a kid counting by twos, hence the title. There’s not much else to it.
Whole Lot of Glean – From a promotional video for the album Glean, it’s a very straightforward song about signing copies of the record. Since it’s TMBG, though, there are lyrics about the band having complicated personal issues as well.
I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar – Originally by Jonathan Richman, whose song “Roadrunner” was cited by Flans as a major influence. TMBG also covered his “I’m a Little Airplane” back when they had a podcast. It’s apparently based on an actual experience Richman had, but it seems weirdly random as a choice for a cover. TMBG’s take turns it into much more of a dance song than Richman’s sparse acoustic arrangement.
Rock Club – This was an old Dial-A-Song that I first heard on an umpteenth-generation cassette. The thing is, I seem to remember people particularly disliking it even compared to other unreleased, low-quality DAS recordings. It’s certainly not one of the band’s best songs, but there’s a forlorn sound to it that I appreciate. I also think it paved the way for some of their other songs about the weirdness of performing.
Thankful for Your Service – According to TMBW, this was written for a compilation of songs based on the amendments to the United States Constitution. This was for the Third Amendment, so it references someone forced to quarter a soldier in his home, but in a modern context of a terrible roommate.
The Summer Breeze – This is another old DAS, uploaded onto the band’s website back in 1994. It takes the urban legend about a serial killer with a hook on his hand leaving said hook on a car door handle, and twists it in a way that doesn’t make that much sense, making the car itself the killer, and its door handle coming off on a radio dial. I’m glad they’re reworking some of these rarities.
Another Weirdo – A mellow, jazzy instrumental with a lot of sax and accordion.
Door to Door Minotaur – This was dedicated to Hardy Fox of the Residents, who died last October. While the Residents preferred to remain anonymous, Hardy admitted to being the composer and producer in 2017. The band was an influence on TMBG, particularly in their early years, and this song includes elements of their sound, like the synthesizer and gruffly spoken vocals.
The Greatest (full-length mix) – A longer version of the song from I Like Fun, which was extended a bit for the music video. It wasn’t one of my favorites on the album, so it’s not like I needed a longer mix, but it’s an interesting rarity.
Christmas in the Big House – I wonder if this was at all inspired by John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison.” They’re both quiet numbers about the same subject. I guess it could also be a follow-up to “Careless Santa.”
The Power of Dial-A-Song – A new version of an old jingle for the DAS service. And with that, we’re finished.
I’ve listened to TMBG’s other recent release, The Escape Team, but I should probably read the comic before I really get into it.