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...or they might not

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

You know that "Far Side" cartoon in which, in split panels, people queue up to be handed a certain something by angels and demons, with the captions reading, respectively, "Welcome to heaven. Here's your harp" and "Welcome to hell. Here's your accordion"? It's actually my fave Gary Lawson cartoon. But how to square its message with the loopy music of They Might Be Giants?

Here's the dilemma: They Might Be Giants do use accordions (seemingly in every other song, along with horns, organs, violin, and of course guitar), but the results sure as heck aren't hellish. The two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) are something of an acquired taste, admittedly; to play an accordion invariably leads you to produce an offputting oom-pah-pah sound, and when you pair that with Linnell's nasal vocals, one is tempted to frantically reach for the off button on ye olde remote controle.

Well, that might be so if you lack a sense of humour or an affinity for the absurd. Some actual lyric snippets from They Might Be Giants' masterpiece Flood (1989):

Actual snippets from the new album John Henry:

Sure, they're taken out of context, but you're not missing anything. They Might Be Giants churn out holographic music: You see the whole in the parts. You don't need to be an easily-amused flighty young queen to love their stuff, either; even hardcore rockheads can learn from the Giants. Take a listen to the guitars on Flood's "Your Racist Friend" and feel your face flush - and ears burn - in the presence of their sizzling majesty.

And if that ain't enough, watch some of their videos, in which les deux John execute - and sometimes force dozens of extras to execute - the wackiest dance routines this side of Bizarro comics. (Look down. Scowl. Place palm on crown of head. Grab shirt. Pull shirt forward. March in lockstep.) Most of the Giants' new videos have been imaginatively captioned, too, meaning deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers can join in the fun.

OK, so they're fabulous. What's the new album like? More of the same, thankfully. We Giants-heads lived through a brief trough in 1992 with the Apollo 18 album, in which Linnell actually swore (gadzukes!) and the duo's arrangements were sour and monotonous. (Roughly half the "tracks" - let's not call 'em "songs" - on the Apollo 18 CD were under 30 seconds long. You're supposed to play the disc in shuffle mode and find the randomly-interspersed jingles amusing. They weren't.) On John Henry, you'll want to skip track nine, "Spy," with its tedious minute-and-a-half "jazzy" jamming, and maybe Flansburgh's basso singing on the subsequent number, "O[h], Do Not Forsake Me," is worth skipping too, but that still leaves you with 18 musical gems. Sapphire bullets of pure love, as the Giants would say.