Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Till My Head Falls Off" / They Might Be Giants

They might be giants...but then again, they might only be a quirky couple guys named John who write incredibly catchy songs and live in Brooklyn. Did I say catchy songs? Catchy but extremely off-kilter is more like it. Not a conventional love song in the bunch; they're almost like Dadaist paintings, or found-object paintings, each one a refracted image of a reality that wasn't all that significant in the first place. This band is an acquired taste, maybe, but well worth acquiring in my opinion.

What makes They Might Be Giants albums so addictive is their irresistible melodies, an uncanny ability to imitate any genre (including a strange fondness for sea chanties), and a fascination with turning figures of speech inside out. Though they have a certain cult following, the Johns have never really made it onto the record charts, if you don't count the minor hit "Birdhouse In My Soul"; they did write the theme song to Malcolm in the Middle, though ("You're not the boss of me now"), and lately they've had a couple of successful children's albums, No and Here Come The ABCs. Their kid music is way better than most of the stuff in that market niche, but I hope they don't get pigeon-holed; it would be a crying shame if They Might Be Giants lost the dark, snide edge lurking beneath their deadpan daffiness.

Look at some of these song titles: "Exquisite Dead Guy," "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," "I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die," "Dig My Grave," "My Evil Twin," "The Statue Got Me High" -- and the thing I love is that these aren't cool, disaffected hipster tracks, but tight, upbeat pop songs (TMBG songs never overstay their welcome) that are blessedly free of metaphor or irony.

"Till My Head Falls Off" is as good an example as any. A track from their 1996 Factory Showroom album, this extremely peppy John Linnell song (he's the one on accordion, the skinny John who looks kinda like a dorky 14-year-old) has an exaggerated cartoonish refrain -- "I'm not done / And I won't be till my head falls off" -- but it makes me remember every headache I've ever suffered, how I wished my head WOULD fall off if the pain would only go away. The lyrics riffle along neurotically fast, crescendoing up a scale: "There were 87 Advil in the bottle / Now there's 30 left /I ate 47 so what happened to the other 10?"

But before we can ponder the mystery of the missing analgesics, Linnell's flat, nasal voice snaps, "Why do you suspiciously change the subject and break my concentration / As I dump the bottle out and I count the Advil up again." Whoa, sorry, dude. (In that one line we see most of the typical emotions in They Might Be Giants songs -- testiness, paranoia, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsion, and whiny resentment -- feelings we are all more familiar with than we'd like to admit.)

As the song goes on, the narrator practices a speech in front of the bathroom mirror, stares dazedly through the frosted glass of the shower stall . . . and well, that's about it. I didn't say it was an important song; it's just what I've got playing on my mental mix-tape today. And I know the pattern by now -- there'll be another They Might Be Giants song coming up after this, and then another, and then another, because once you enter this geeky, goofy world you'd better grab a cream soda and some Cheetos because you'll be here for while.

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