On Saturday night – after a delightful show with my double harp, tuba, and voice band the Wittchen Initiative – I had a long drive home from the concert venue. I have not mastered the art of iPodding, so occasionally I’ll go through a stack of CDs and take a few into my car to listen to. As I began my hour plus trek back to Philadelphia, I opened one of the CD cases only to find two CDs inside. One was the album that was supposed to be there (the eponymous Lincoln), and the other was one from my more formative years: Flood by They Might Be Giants.
As you probably know, I play the accordion and write songs of a quirky and intellectual nature. So as you could probably figure out, I was deeply influenced by They Might Be Giants growing up. Around the time I turned 13, I heard the album Lincoln (different Lincoln) for the first time, and was immediately hooked. I thoroughly enjoyed the album and was delighted to finally have a band that I could identify with and call my own. Soon afterwards, I heard Flood, which was their most popular album to date, featuring such hits as Istanbul (Not Constantinople), Particle Man, and Birdhouse in Your Soul. Of course, being the sulky teenager I was, I immediately pulled a hipster move and showed my disdain for anyone who liked the album. If you were REALLY into They Might Be Giants (as all 4 of my friends were), then you had to like their less commercial songs, not the ones that were played on Tiny Toons. For that reason, it had been years since I had listened to Flood.
It’s always interesting when you knew an album or a song so intimately as a child and then you listen to it again with your adult ears. While you remember the music on a subconscious level and even slip into hearing it just like you used to, you’re often able to pick out instruments in the arrangements or meanings in the lyrics that you didn’t consciously notice before. So it was a treat to listen to Flood on my ride home.
This album was recorded back in TMBG’s pre-live band days, so with the exception of the accordion and guitar, a great deal of the instrumentation was electronic. The bass is almost always a thunky and thwappy MIDI bass and the drums are mostly programmed drum tracks. Additionally, they often toss in random sound effects for punctuation, such as a starting pistol in Lucky Ball and Chain, a car starting in Hearing Aid, and my personal favorite, a rhythmic cough in the drum hits in Hot Cha. The cough may or may not be sampled (you can judge for yourself at the 53 second mark):
I was surprised to hear some fantastic performances on violin and trumpet by Mark Feldman and Frank London (respectively). I mean, I had always heard them, but I hadn’t appreciated the level of skill required to make them sound good. Mark Feldman has a blistering violin solo in Istanbul (Not Constantinople) with all kinds of bends and double stops. Frank London’s trumpet is spot on and virtuosic. They still use sampled trumpet in the song Hearing Aid, but Frank London absolutely kills it in the solo in Your Racist Friend.
Speaking of which, Your Racist Friend was amazing to hear after all these years because of how much the theme has resonated with me. The song is about that moment when you can’t stand by anymore and just let the conversation take an offensive turn. The chorus expresses that exasperation beautifully:
This is where the party ends
I can’t stand here listening
To you and your racist friend.
I know politics bore you
But I feel like a hypocrite talking
To you and your racist friend.
While I’ve known what the song is about for years, in the time since I first heard it at 13 to the present I’ve been put in that situation countless times. The inner turmoil of wondering if you should just let it slide or if it’s time to speak up and say something is excruciating. I love that this song was released in 1990, at a time when subtle (and not so subtle) racism was less challenged. Even if it’s just a song about the fantasy of speaking up, it’s a brave statement to make at a time when not many people were making it.
Best part though: in a song about racism, there’s a blatant co-opting of south-of-the-border flavor in the form of a mariachi trumpet solo from out of nowhere. Whether the irony is intentional or not, I think it’s brilliant.
Throughout, I was fascinated by the understated quality of John Linnell’s accordion playing. There are plenty of times where he comes to the front, but in many songs the accordion is just playing chords low in the mix (such as in Whistling in the Dark, in which the accordion takes a back seat to the voice and bass drum). It adds a small amount of texture without being overbearing. In thinking of my own recording, listening to his playing made me less concerned with making sure there was something vibrant happening at every moment.
I also appreciated their use of triadic harmonies. Most of their chord structures use triads and are played without extensions or suspensions. The few exceptions to this rule are non-triads, but they’re still clear enough to pick out. For example Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love cycles back and forth between an arpeggiated E major chord and a B-flat half diminished seven chord. This kind of simplicity is very much ingrained in the way I write music as well.
So coming back to this album after years in hipsteresque exile was a real treat. By the time I got home and the bizarre Road Movie to Berlin was finishing up (right after the extra bizarre self-titled) They Might Be Giants, I felt refreshed and somewhat vindicated. I got a lot of flack from my friends in junior high school for preferring They Might Be Giants to such timeless artists as Aerosmith, Bel Biv Devoe, and Paula Abdul. It was great to hear how relevant Flood still was with songs about racism (Your Racist Friend), mortal regret (Dead), overpopulation (Women and Men), sexism (Lucky Ball and Chain), and economics (Minimum Wage… HIAHHH!). Musically and lyrically, it holds up after all these years. If I ever find its original case, it will be back in rotation as a prominent part of my collection.
Arbitrary Rating: I give it 9 arbitrary symbols up!