Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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They Might Be Giants

  • They Might Be Giants [Bar/None, 1986] A
  • Lincoln [Restless/Bar/None, 1988] B+
  • Flood [Elektra, 1990] **
  • Miscellaneous T [Bar/None/Restless, 1991] Choice Cuts
  • Apollo 18 [Elektra, 1992] A-
  • Why Does the Sun Shine? [Elektra, 1993] Neither
  • John Henry [Elektra, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Factory Showroom [Elektra, 1996] ***
  • Severe Tire Damage [Restless, 1998] B+
  • Long Tall Weekend [www.emusic.com, 1999] A-
  • Mink Car [Restless, 2001] **
  • Holidayland [Restless, 2001] **
  • Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants [Rhino/Elektra, 2002] A
  • No! [Idlewild, 2002] Dud
  • Indestructible Object [Barsuk, 2004] Choice Cuts
  • Here Come the ABCs [Disney Sound, 2005] Choice Cuts
  • The Else [Idlewild, 2007] Choice Cuts
  • Here Come the 123s [Disney Sound, 2008] A-
  • Here Comes Science [Disney Sound, 2009] ***
  • Album Raises New and Troubling Questions [Idlewild, 2011] **
  • Join Us [Idlewild/Rounder, 2011] **
  • Nanobots [Idlewild/Megaforce, 2013] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

They Might Be Giants [Bar/None, 1986]
Two catchy weirdos, eighteen songs, and the hits just keep on coming in an exuberantly annoying show of creative superabundance. Their secret is that as unmediated pop postmodernists they can be themselves stealing from anywhere, modulating without strain or personal commitment from hick to nut to nerd. Like the cross-eyed bear in the regretful but not altogether kind "Hide Away Folk Family," their "shoes are laced with irony," but that doesn't doom them to art-school cleverness or never meaning what they say. Their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form. They live in a world where "Everything Right Is Wrong Again" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog." A

Lincoln [Restless/Bar/None, 1988]
XTC as computer nerds rather than studio wimps--change for chord change and beat for irrelevant beat, they're actively annoying even if intelligence is all you ask of your art-pop. Except maybe on the antiboomer "Purple Toupee," side one's hooks begin and end with "Ana Ng," a beyond-perfect tour de force about a Vietnamese woman they never got to meet; until "Kiss Me, Son of God," which closes the album and could be anti-Castro if they let it, side two's are cleverness for cleverness's sake. And damned clever they are. B+

Flood [Elektra, 1990]
tunes, aarghh, tunes--please not more tunes ("Dead," "Your Racist Friend") **

Miscellaneous T [Bar/None/Restless, 1991]
"We're the Replacements"; "Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought We Had a Deal" Choice Cuts

Apollo 18 [Elektra, 1992]
For a stunning five-song run toward the start, they replicate the brittle brilliance that tricked their old fans into expecting a tour de force every time. The packed pop-pomo pastiches make the redolent meaninglessness of near-literal lyrics signify and sing, softening you up for the more scattered experiments that follow. Which include the XTC-does-Bo-Diddley "Hypnotist of Ladies," the 22-part "Fingertips" ("I'm having a heart attack/I'm having a heart attack"), the brittlely brilliant "Dinner Bell," and "Narrow Your Eyes," which if I'm not mistaken is about the actual dissolution of an actual relationship. A-

Why Does the Sun Shine? [Elektra, 1993] Neither

John Henry [Elektra, 1994]
"I Should Be Allowed to Think"; "Meet James Ensor" Choice Cuts

Factory Showroom [Elektra, 1996]
to quote the ever clever Ian Dury, there ain't half been some clever bastards ("How Can I Sing Like a Girl?," "I Can Hear You," "James K. Polk," "XTC Vs. Adam Ant") ***

Severe Tire Damage [Restless, 1998]
Billed as greatest hits but actually just live, and not especially well-chosen by my no-more-or-less-idiosyncratic-than-theirs lights--where's "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?"? And of course there are bait cuts, new songs their wee fan base presumably can't live without. What I wouldn't have figured is that "Doctor Worm" ("I'm not a real doctor but I am a real worm") and "They Got Lost" (trying to find a radio station so low-watt it fades out no matter which way they turn), are my favorite things on a record that includes "XTC Vs. Adam Ant" and "Meet James Ensor," reflexively clever titles I include as a guarantee that the songs live up to them. "Meet They Might Be Giants/Brooklyn's cultish songmen/Set on random, skim our book/Watch out for falling hooks." B+

Long Tall Weekend [www.emusic.com, 1999]
The biggest problem with Net-music utopianism is that no matter how fast and convenient downloads get, music itself will continue to exist in, if you'll pardon the expression, real time. That's its very essence. If 1441 minutes of music go up on the Web today, that's a minute more than anyone can hear in that period, period. Might the Net be a useful way for consumers to sample their musical options? Sure. Might it help strapped artists get by? Conceivably. Are there good things there that are unavailable elsewhere? Certainly not as many as in the sum total of specialty shops in our metropolis, although the same may not hold in Wichita. This, however, is one of them. Human song generators whose metier is the miscellany, they're ideally suited to construct a download-only album that isn't an out file taking on airs. Although "They Got Lost" is on last year's live album and patrons of their live shows and dial-a-song service may recognize other tunes, this is as enjoyable a CD as they've released in the '90s. With love to the literal "Operators Are Standing By," it peaks with "Older," which is about real time. A-

Mink Car [Restless, 2001]
but that doesn't mean they hate short people ("Older," "Wicked Little Critta") **

Holidayland [Restless, 2001]
something German plus something Jewish equals borscht-belt gestalt ("Santa's Beard," "Feast of Lights") **

Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants [Rhino/Elektra, 2002]
With invention keeping annoyance at bay for two-times-twice-13 selections, why list omitted faves? Guys who feed songs to their pet answering machine are supposed to write more than anyone can keep track of. The Eurohit is here, the TV theme, the Austin Powers-certified Shirley Bassey parody. But I'm won over by the dozens of songs I'd never heard before, or just never noticed. Yeah their unsexxxy voices and avoidance of notes that might confuse an answering machine can be off-putting. But the wit and tunes are nonstop, not to mention the historical sketches, the music lessons, the surrealist riddles, the love songs--and more faith, hope, and charity than they let on. A

No! [Idlewild, 2002] Dud

Indestructible Object [Barsuk, 2004]
"Au Contraire" Choice Cuts

Here Come the ABCs [Disney Sound, 2005]
"D Is for Drums," "The Vowel Family" Choice Cuts

The Else [Idlewild, 2007]
"The Mesopotamians" Choice Cuts

Here Come the 123s [Disney Sound, 2008]
Chuck Berry once defined music as "just some mathematics and a few vibrations," which suggests why the 2008 installment of TMBG's preschool-ed series is more adult-friendly than the 2005 alphabet and 2009 science editions. These supreme technicians were made to devise songs about numbers, and although being clever is always their specialty, these arithmetic lessons give them the chance to be very clever indeed--suddenly 7-year-olds who've long since memorized "One Everything" or "Even Numbers" are going to figure out their deeper meanings and start dreaming in algebra. Other multitracks for the ages include "Zeroes," which "mean so much," "The Number Two," about connectedness, "Apartment Four," occupied by a drummer, and "Infinity," which doesn't go on forever though they could have pulled some out-groove trick just to be perverse. A-

Here Comes Science [Disney Sound, 2009]
Catchy facts marshaled to fortify innocents against Christianist anti-empiricism, and marred by progessivist didacticism as a result ("Why Does the Sun Shine?" "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?"). ***

Album Raises New and Troubling Questions [Idlewild, 2011]
A "rarities compilation" needn't maintain a surge, but it should peak more than this one does ("Authenticity Trip," "Marty Beller Mask," "Tubthumping") **

Join Us [Idlewild/Rounder, 2011]
Kiddie songs becoming a habit, clever fellows service the grownup market ("When Will You Die," "2082") **

Nanobots [Idlewild/Megaforce, 2013]
They're such novelty nuts that trying to get into a groove with them would be like trying to build a go-kart with Legos. They're about individual pieces, not structural strength, and thus always demand a count. My calculation: overlooking the nine subminute snippets--most annoying even at that length, with bows to the nine-second "Tick" ("If it wasn't for that tick/We would not be in this predicament/Not be in this predicament that we're in," over and out) and the 24-second closer (she neither killed him nor made him stronger)--that leaves 16 songs that pretend to be songs, including one A plus, two clear A minuses, and six close enoughs. One of these is as strong as--and more soulful than--anything in their catalogue: the 2:04-minute biography "Tesla." Thumbs up as well to "Black Ops," because it's always fun to hear the word "communist" in a song, and "Replicants," because for some arbitrary reason it tickles me. The arbitrarily amusing--their specialty. B+