Before he and John Linnell started They Might Be Giants, John Flansburgh was in a band called the Turtlenecks (even though it seems to be Linnell who actually WORE turtlenecks more often), which he’s mentioned before as sort of a spiritual predecessor to TMBG, and the band that originally performed “Alienation’s for the Rich.” They were formed when Flansburgh went to college in Antioch, with his then-girlfriend Julie Kantner on bass. The only recording of theirs I know of that was released for a long time, however, was their cover of “Indiana Wants Me,” part of TMBG Unlimited in 2001. From the Don’t Let’s Start podcast, however, I learned that Julie (who is interviewed in the episode) released a six-song EP on Bandcamp in 2015. Since the podcast came out this year, I’m kind of surprised I didn’t hear anything about this before. Granted, I’m not really connected to the TMBG fan community like I was in the late nineties and early 2000s, but it’s pretty significant. It’s clear that Flans brought many of the sensibilities to this band he later did to TMBG, including his love for sound experimentation and rather dark sense of humor. It’s more primitive-sounding, of course, but that’s only to be expected. It’s basically made up of the songs for which Julie could find recordings, so I don’t think there’s any particular significance to how, for instance, two of the songs on it are covers; John was writing a lot back then just as he does now. As someone with completist tendencies, it’s a shame I’ll never be able to hear every song written by Flansburgh or Linnell, any more than I will those by Frank Black or Scott McCaughey. It’s not like there’s not a market for even their crappier things these days, but I’m sure a lot of it just doesn’t exist anymore.
Julie’s Tune – A song John wrote for Julie, both a love song and Cold War paranoia number, sort of saying she’s the only ray of hope in a world of neutron bombs and storm troopers. Julie apparently plays a water faucet in this, although I can’t really hear it. One thing I noticed about most of these songs is how rubbery the guitar tends to sound.
It’s Cold Outside – A cover of a breakup song originally performed by a garage band called the Choir in 1966, with a surf-rock kind of sound to it. While a pretty straight recreation and still quite catchy, it sounds a little bit darker, although whether that’s on purpose or just a result of the sound quality, I couldn’t say. My favorite part is how, after the line “jokes used to be funny,” Flans gives a rather unemotional “ha ha ha.”
In a World Without Food – This one seems to fit the trend that comes up in several early TMBG songs, where the title is a simple joke on a line from another song, but that isn’t necessarily the same direction the song itself takes. “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes,” “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die,” and “Cage and Aquarium” all come to mind. The name is likely a play on “A World Without Love,” written by Paul McCartney and recorded by Peter and Gordon, and the song itself a parody of hippie optimism. The basic idea is that, if there weren’t any food, there wouldn’t be any reason to fight. Of course, we’d also all be dead. The opening is a conscious imitation of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” and there’s a spoken-word interlude and a noisy breakdown jam at the end. I suspect Flans would have fleshed out the idea a little more if he wrote the song today, and also that he probably wouldn’t use the word “negro.”
Where Are All the People in the World? – Flansburgh’s take on a cowboy song includes some clever wordplay: “Sometimes I feel like a cowboy, sometimes I feel like a pony. Well, I never feel, feel at home on the range.” It’s a pretty catchy number where John laments not having seen any other people in three years. I have to wonder what it would sound like with a more traditional country-western arrangement, although I do like it as it is.
I Slept with This Thing All the Way Back from Baltimore – According to Julie, the idea came from John helping to transport some audiovisual equipment from Baltimore to Antioch, and he used this phrase afterwards. There is a definite appeal to it, perhaps even more so if you don’t know the context. In the song, he just repeats the same line over and over again, with occasional minor variations, and a drumbeat and occasional guitar licks in the background.
Indiana Wants Me – Another cover, originally recorded by R. Dean Taylor for the Motown label in 1970, about a murderer on the run from the police. Back in 2000, when my mom was driving me to Indiana for the Oz Centennial Convention, she kept singing the opening lines, but couldn’t remember any more of it. The following year, the Turtlenecks’ version appeared on TMBG Unlimited. The interview with Julie indicates that Flans wanted to cover this mostly because he found it cheesy, and that he felt the same way about “Reach Out of the Darkness,” by Friend & Lover. That’s the song with the line, “I think it’s so groovy now that people are finally getting together,” and it’s in some commercial now. I can’t say I really understand that lyric, though. What, people weren’t getting together prior to 1967?
Another thing I wanted to mention about the podcast that doesn’t directly relate to TMBG (or the Turtlenecks) was that Jordan talked about this playlist of Liz Phair songs that she wrote around the time of her fourth album, but ended up not using. I wrote a little about Liz’s music back in 2006, but I was aware of her well before that. It seemed like a fair number of TMBG fans I knew also liked her, even though I don’t think they’re very similar. Later, I found out that they were both on the soundtrack for the Kids in the Hall movie, Brain Candy. I remember the mainstream entertainment media making a big deal of her fourth album, but people I knew who were already fans tended to be disappointed by it. Fountains of Wayne were also be touted as “emerging artists” around then, when they had released two albums previously, and I knew people online who had been fans for a while. It’s not often that I’m ahead of the trends, although in both these cases I was still well behind other people I knew. Same way with Neko Case, I guess; she was still playing small, intimate venues when Beth and I first saw her live, but she’d recorded two or three albums and done vocals on the first New Pornographers record prior to that. I think TMBG had already passed their peak popularity before I really took an interest in them. But anyway, Jordan particularly pointed out the song “Waiting for the Bird” (sometimes called “White Bird of Texas”), about her relatives seeing strange birds not long before they died.Thematically, it reminds me of XTC’s “Rook.”I was also particularly struck by “White Babies,” from the same playlist, a funny song to a tune that’s mostly the same as “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”