Building Quirky Birdhouses: They Might Be Giants’ Flood at 30
Why we need the levity of John Flansburgh and John Linnell’s college radio classic now more than ever
Brooklyn-based duo They Might Be Giants—led by multi-instrumentalists and vocalists John Flansburgh and John Linnell—have been a beacon of alternative / indie rock (as well as college radio and children’s music) since forming in 1982.
In a nutshell, they’re best known for interweaving highly ironic, sardonic and genuinely clever lyricism on top of enormously catchy melodies, endearingly unassuming singing and deceptively simple arrangements. In other words, there’s a lot of skill and depth beneath their intellectual yet peculiar DIY façade. While all 22 of their studio LPs thus far—ranging from 1986’s eponymous debut to 2018’s triple threat of I Like Fun, My Murdered Remains and The Escape Team—more or less maintain those charms, many fans and critics agree that 1990’s Flood is still their pinnacle package. Thankfully, its entertaining witticisms, ambitious scope, and varied styles as just as joyous ainfectious thirty years later.
Prior to Flood, TMBG were on Restless and Bar/None; however, they received major league backing from Elektra for this third outing (and they stayed with them through 1996’s Factory Showroom). As a result, Linnell and Flansburgh were naturally given far more help in terms of promotion and staff while also retaining creative control. For instance, they stopped working with producer Bill Krauss in favor of the dual oversight of Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer (who, whether separately or together, previously produced Madness, The Teardrop Explodes and Elvis Costello and the Attractions, among many others).
Likewise, they stayed in NYC but relocated from Dubway Studios to Skyline Studios, where they implemented new recording equipment and techniques (such as using kitchen appliances for percussion). Fleshing out the arrangements were far more session musicians than they’d ever had, including vocalists Marion Beckenstein and Joel Mitchell, trombonist Rick McRae, trumpeter Frank London, drum programmer Alan Bezozi, violinist Mark Feldman, and influential avant-garde guitarist Arto Lindsay (DNA, The Lounge Lizards).
As for the artwork, its central photograph—of a guy rowing in a boat made from connected basins—was actually a part of Margaret Bourke-White’s visual chronicle of the 1937 Ohio River flood. Today, it remains TMBG’s most recognizable album cover. Beyond that, Flansburgh, Barbara Lipp, and Elizabeth van Itallie worked on other aspects, such as the They Might Be Giants emblem (which was designed to evoke the symbol of the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees).
Working with Elektra also meant that they could promote Flood in larger ways, such as a promotional video that found them explaining the merits of their music with tongue-in-cheek amateurish appeal. Of course, talk show appearances and music videos (for “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Particle Man,” and their version of Kennedy and Simon’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” from 1953) followed; all the while, they embarked on an international tour. Fifteen years on, they released Flood Live in Austrailia, which saw them perform all nineteen tracks in reverse order. Unsurprisingly—but still excitingly—TMBG are now set to perform Flood in its entirety throughout March 2020.
VIDEO: TMBG Flood EPK
Although 1988’s Lincoln fared well critically and commercially—and 1989’s Don’t Let’s Start (a B-side and remix compilation) brought them new listeners in the UK and West Germany—Flood was undoubtedly their breakthrough effort. Issued on January 15th, it earned high remarks from publications like Chicago Tribune, NME, Q, Spin, and Record Mirror. That said, there were some detractors, such as Rolling Stone’s David Browne, who wrote that the LP “defines the self-satisfied smugness and proudly disposable pop culture of the Eighties. . . . Most of these songs aren’t about anything but being clever.” To be fair, Browne isn’t entirely wrong, as Flood does find the pair walking the line between affable confidence and conceited pride; but, like the larger-than-life egos of, say, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, and Quentin Tarantino, Flansburgh and Linnell had the chops to justify it. Obviously, fans agreed, as it was heavily awarded due to record sales. It was their first album to be certified Platinum by the RIAA and Gold by the BPI in the UK. It also peaked at #75 on the Billboard 200.
Decades later, Flood overflows with colorful greatness, so it’s no wonder why many artists recently extolled its worth and weight. The opening segment—“Theme from Flood”—instantly gives the sequence an endearing and humorous sense of operatic festivity. (As a Devin Townsend devotee, I can’t help but connect it to how 2012’s Epicloud begins with “Effervescent!” as well). From there, the aforementioned “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Particle Man” must be venerated. The first two were radio singles—for clear reasons—and as anyone who grew up in the 1990s knows, the latter duo are forever linked with their wackily drawn representations from Tiny Toon Adventures (see below). Undeniably, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is a perfect synthesis of strikingly inventive minimalism and infectious singing; “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is brilliantly amusing yet heftily educational and worldly; and “Particle Man” exemplifies why they were the kings of sophisticated children’s music (rivaled only by “Weird Al” Yankovic from time to time). All three display TMBG’s knack for memorable melodies, smartly informative and/or historical wordplay, and intriguing instrumentation, and the other radio cut, “Twisting,” has a vintage 1950s party pop charm to boot.
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople” from Tiny Toon Adventures
“Particle Man” from Tiny Toon Adventures
Elsewhere, “Lucky Ball and Chain” is a quick and quirky slice of light countrified rock; “Dead” places a touch of Doo-wop style on top of a typically bizarre piano ballad; “Your Racist Friend” uses ska influences for one of their most clearly political tracks; and “Letterbox” is a chicly weird waltz. There are also the surreal sound collages of “Minimum Wage” and the almost Zappa-esque “Sapphire Bullets of True Love” to demonstrate just how versatile and experimental TMBG could be, whereas “Women and Men” packs in pleasant harmonies and structures as it dissects human reproduction. Clearly, and despite how cliché it may be to say, ‘Someone Keeps Moving my Chair” puts a 1980s synth sheen over early Beatles-like progressions. As for “Road Movie to Berlin,” it concludes Flood with a thrilling juxtaposition of rustic acoustic lamentation and cinematic musical bombasticity, cementing the fact that nearly the entire collection is wildly idiosyncratic and likeable.
That’s not to say that it’s all equally enjoyable, though, and there are a few cuts that stand out as lesser inclusions. Despite being agreeably well made, “We Want a Rock” just isn’t that enticing or impressive; likewise, “Hearing Aid” is so empty and blasé that it’s a tad boring (even if it has some fun timbres). Subsequently, the resourcefulness of “Whistling in the Dark,” “They Might Be Giants,” and “Hot Cha” is somewhat tarnished by their sheer goofiness and immaturity. None of these tracks are bad, per say, and they do widen TMBG’s characteristic palette; however, they’re easily the most disposable entries, and they pale in comparison to the strongest bits of songwriting and arranging on the LP.
While not every piece of its delightfully vibrant, hooky, and odd puzzle holds up, the majority of Flood is still a remarkable feat. After all, it finds TMBG reaching new levels of creative, commercial, and critical success due to an increase in, well, every necessary element. Sure, the duo would go on to have a lot more triumph and worthwhile material (perhaps most importantly, their theme song to Malcolm in the Middle, “Boss of Me,” which also appeared on European versions of 2011’s Mink Car); nevertheless, Flood remains their most consistent, representative and influential release.
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One thought on “Building Quirky Birdhouses: They Might Be Giants’ Flood at 30”
I couldn’t believe this album is 30 years old. I just played it. I have Racist Friend Live on Letterman; a tape which I am now reminded to digitize a second time.