“It’s a brand new record for 1990!”

“Birdhouse In Your Soul”: The Purely Accidental Homage by an unknown Crafty Country Grandma

The opening track is a theme song laden with the sort of hokey harmonies that set the tone for those ’50’s sitcoms they used to show on Nickelodeon.  The buttercream blend of male and female voices evoke the comforting predictability of the nostalgic past.  Yet it is the theme song of a romance so epic, a spirit of goodwill so heroic, that it smacks of utter madness and, ultimately, portends destruction on an apocalyptic scale.   “Why is the world in love again?  Why are we marching hand in hand?  Why are the ocean levels rising up?” Why, indeed?  Well,  “It’s a brand new record for 1990!  They Might Be Giants’ brand new album: FLOOD!”     

Of course.

Flood was, in the vernacular of the music industry, They Might Be Giants’ major label debut, and, as such, their Breakthrough Album.  The modest two-man band comprised solely of Johns (known to me as Guitar John and Accordion John from my acquaintance with their self-titled debut and Lincoln), ponied up to the hype, fortifying their sound with the aforementioned Father Knows Donna Reed Best choir, third-world violins, rasping jazz man trumpets, sly trombones, analogue drums, what sounded like a vacuum cleaner, and the solitary crack of a whip.  Similarly, their songwriting, (termed “weird” by those who did not like it, and “quirky” by those who pretended they did) gobbled up entire genres like a cartoon factory would, as if fed by a conveyor belt.  Folk, country, corporate jingles, jazz, world music–all raw materials consumed in the creation of a product that strained the imaginative limits of modern marketing.  Flood was therefore sold as “quirky” music for “weird” people.  Naturally, it was a college radio smash.

I was 20 years old when Flood was “a brand new record for 1990” on Electra Records.  Flood was my very first CD and now it is as old as I was when I first put it on the spindle of my first CD player and listened to it via my repurposed Walkman headphones.  The very same CD now spins in my hard drive as I listen to it via my repurposed iPod earbuds.   My glasses are considerably smaller now than they were when I was 20, and my temples have taken on an Earth-2 Superman silver.  The fairy-faint sounds of my daughter ruling her pretend pink kingdom sift into those between-songs-silences once commandeered by my dad’s anti-Bush, anti-Gulf War rants.  (That would be the *first* Bush and the *first* Gulf War.)   Flood thumps, wahs, and whines in my head with a startling freshness, completely unravaged by two decades, two Bushes, and two wars.   It packs the sweet, jawbreaking crunch-punch of a milkproof mouthful of Quisp cereal.

The songs seem to explode from the flash point where book-smart collides with smartass.  The Johns, consummate Fermilab pranksters of composers that they are, spared no element of the human condition from surreal experimentation: our capacity for intimacy is calibrated to the teensy dimentions of a “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, our longing for the solace of simplicity is  boiled down on the bunsen burner to the elemental metaphor “We Want A Rock”, our abilty to tolerate large-scale torment is crash-tested mightily only to be crushed irredeemably by the merely irksome: “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”, our eagerness to drink that dangerous cocktail of high self esteem and optimism is case-studied in “Whistling In The Dark”.   Flood‘scounter-intuitive images (“Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads” , “countless screaming Argonauts”, “Frosty the Supervisor”) are packed within neatly rhyming lyrics.  These strange songs demonstrate perfect respect for the pop song craft convention of verse-chorus-verse and the occasional bridge.  The songs are short.  They are catchy.  They are sneaky little bastards that way.

Above the riotous din of the marching bands, the exotic yodeling, the 88-key tap dancing reigns The Whine.  Summoned up from the recesses of the nasal cavities belonging to Accordion John (and to a lesser extent Guitar John), The Whine is to They Might Be Giants what the Stratocaster was to Jimi Hendrix.  The Whine is, in fact, They Might Be Giants’ signature sound.  It is also the most polarizing sound in the band’s repertoire.  Not everyone can take the The Whine.   The Whine is not for everybody.    The only thing that sounds even remotely like The Whine has to be that mocking “nyah nyah” sound that little kids make when they safely dodge a snowball or some other projectile intended to humble its would-be target.   The Whine similarly conveys a sense of imperviousness.  It declares a cheery, childish exemption from emotional pain, thus freeing They Might Be Giants to explore all that is painful with complete fearlessness.  (Counterpoint this vocal point of view to that of TMBG’s contemporaries like  U2’s Bono whose  the noble roar  said “everybody hurts” much more eloquently than REM ever could or The Smiths’ Morrissey whose mournful wail declared “nobody hurts as much as I do”).   The more brutal the truth, the more brutal The Whine.  Take for example, the track “Dead” in which The Johns despair a wasted life from behind the protective force field of an unrelenting tandem Whine:  “Now its over I’m dead and I haven’t / Done anything that I want / Or, I’m still alive / and there’s nothing I want to do.”

Flood will never grow up, despite its age.    It will never hold down a cubicle job or wrong-headedly consider Grecian Formula for its temples or force its children to endure its barely informed viewpoints on world events.  Its bid for immortality succeeds by virtue of its invulnerable immaturity. It bounces on, telling tales of the disappointment and frustration that befalls everyone other than itself.  Those who loved Flood for these 20 years  keep getting older; they look back upon those disappointments and frustrations, taking comfort in the immaturity that caused them in the first place.  Like the unreliable narrator of “Lucky Ball And Chain”, “I was young and foolish then/I feel old and foolish now.”

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12 Responses to ““It’s a brand new record for 1990!””

  1. Kelly Says:

    😀 😀 😀 !!Particle Man!! 😀 😀 😀

    What the heck is the thing Accordion John is playing?

  2. Marc Says:

    “I’m your only friend
    I’m not your only friend
    But I’m a little glowing friend
    But really I’m not actually your friend
    But I am”

    ‘Flood’ was one of the last ‘tapes’ I ever bought. I started buying CDs in 1991 (‘Out Of Time’ was the first CD I ever bought, but I think I got the Zeppelin boxset at Giftmast – TM Hell Raisin – first… it’s been a while), even if I didn’t get a CD player until March ’92 (and I plan to buy a Blu-Ray in about 5 years). I still pop it up in the car sometimes. (Maybe I should think of downloading the album and put the songs on my iPod. Someone might see me with a 4-track in my hands and have me institutionalized.) It really hasn’t aged a day.

    Can I be your ‘bloubird of friendliness’?

    • hellraisin Says:

      I wondered when you’d find me. Welcome back.

      • Marc Says:

        I gotta give major props to Internet search engines for finding you here. Funny story, that one: I was looking for the archetypal ‘Meister chick on the Web, so I googled “sexy woman age twenty glasses cigarette kundera”, and VOILÀ!!!

        (OK, so I finally saw the link on your Goodreads profile… it DID take me forever to notice that… about time, I say)

        Love it “back” here. I’ll need time to catch up with all things Raisin, but I’m really looking forward to it.

        Here’s a little something you might get a kick out of:

        http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7764-this-is-not-a-mixtape/

        Interesting shit. Enjoy!

        M.

  3. Andreae Callanan Says:

    No joke: Flood was the soundtrack as my teenage social-justice nerd friends and I hung out in my friend Geoff’s basement and built large foam puppets, with which we would go on to tour local high schools, teaching fellow (but less nerdy) teenagers about things like options for dealing with teen pregnancy, where to go to get an HIV test, how homophobia is bad, and what working conditions are like in Mexico. Flood always fills me with lefty righteousness.

  4. Andreae Callanan Says:

    (If we weren’t popular, it was only because Society was Keeping Us Down, Man…)

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