In the Wilderness: They Might be Giants, 1994-2001

In the Wilderness

In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked period of an artist’s career. While originally intended as a podcast, “social distancing” has necessitated a different approach. For the time being, In the Wilderness has taken shape in the form of a “Slack chat.”

For this week’s installment of In the Wilderness, I am joined by George Budney and Tim Ryan Nelson. We’ll be talking about the long-running alt-rock institution, They Might be Giants, who hit the scene in the mid-eighties with a pair of home-recorded albums that brought the duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh to unexpected “indie” stardom.

In 1990, They Might be Giants released their first major label album, Flood, on Elektra, and began a surprisingly smooth transition to mainstream success. Apollo 18 followed in 1992, and closed out their “duo” era. For 1994’s John Henry, TMBG became a full-fledged band – embracing a more expansive rock sound, while retaining (most of) the hallmark “quirkiness” of their beloved earlier work.

As teenagers, George, Tim, and I were right in the middle of They Might be Giants’ target demographic for most of this “wilderness” period. While long-time fans may have been put off by the “bigger” sound of this era, these were the real-time releases that accompanied our own discovery of the group. In our chat, we discussed the band’s albums from 1994-2001, and three side project releases by Linnell and Flansburgh:


MR: Alright, I guess we should start talking about They Might be Giants now. First things first: did either of you ever find out if they are, in fact, giants?

TRN: They’re actually normal sized. I’ve seen them live, so I can confirm.

MR: Flansburgh is larger than Linnell. I know that.

TRN: Flans is larger, but hardly a giant.

MR: I remember being so intrigued by their name when I first heard of them. I saw a concert advertisement in a record shop in Hawaii around the time of Apollo 18. A Google search confirms that they did actually play in Honolulu in late-1992.

TRN: I remember hearing their name in passing long before I ever heard them. I assumed they were a very different type of band – maybe like 10,000 Maniacs or something? I was trying to remember when/where I first heard their music and when I became a fan, but I really can’t. I was in a nerd band in high school, though, and we covered “Window” before I ever heard it. So that may have gotten me started, but I can’t confirm that I hadn’t already heard some other albums of theirs.

GB: For me it was Flood and the MTV breakout – “Birdhouse in Your Soul” – then “Particle Man” on Animaniacs, I think.

TRN: Oh duh, yeah it was definitely Animaniacs, but I don’t think that got me into the band. I’m not sure I was really aware that those songs weren’t just original Animaniacs songs.

GB: I got Flood on tape for Christmas in 1990, with a Walkman and copies of Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits and Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing” – an age before parental labels. I was 10.

MR: Was the Aerosmith one just a blank tape? My older brother and I heard “Don’t Let’s Start” on the radio in the summer of 1993. He went out and bought the self-titled album, but I don’t think he was really that into it. So, this “wilderness” era is pretty special for me, since it begins right around the time that I was getting into them. Why does it make sense as a “wilderness” – or does it?

GB: It does for me because there were four really solid albums leading up to it, and it felt like just two guys. Starting with John Henry, the formula changed, and then they were ‘discovered’ and taken over by Malcom in the Middle. And the culture moved away from irony after Mink Car.

TRN: John Henry was their “Judas” moment. One of the Wikipedia entries I read mentioned that some fans were really pissed and protested them when they introduced the full band.

MR: I knew the full band thing was not loved across the board by the fan base – partly because their live shows lost a lot of the theatrical element.

TRN: I still say Apollo 18 had already started to move in the direction of being more than just sounding like two guys.

MR: Yeah, though Apollo was still pretty well-received by fans, right?

TRN: I think it was, yeah.

GB: As a 13-year-old fan, yes. It was my favorite record for years.

TRN: That’s where they started to get more anthemic at times – definitely a bigger sound.

MR: Weirdly enough, when I was looking to define the TMBG wilderness last week, the Rate Your Music ratings for the first four albums were all exactly the same (3.70). Apollo has since dropped to a 3.69.

TRN: I like Apollo 18, but it’s my least favorite of the first four.

MR: Point being, I think – at least at this point – Apollo seems to be about as well-regarded as the widely-beloved first three.

TRN: Okay, right, point is everyone loved those albums and then this one comes along – which is still a great album, and a DOUBLE album.

MR: I guess it would be a double as an LP, huh?

GB: And it divided all the kids.

John Henry, LP (1994)

MR: I really like John Henry.

GB: I do too. I was on the fan side of it. Had several friends that weren’t.

TRN: For an album with so many songs, there is a surprising lack of filler.

MR: Yep, and they utilize the full band sound really well.

TRN: Absolutely – especially the horns on songs like “Spy” and “No One Knows My Plan.”

GB: “Dirt Bike” horns too.

TRN: Oh yeah, the horns on “Dirt Bike” are incredible.

MR: I like all of “Dirt Bike.” That’s a fave.

GB: That’s where any doubt about a full band goes away.

MR: I spent a lot more time thinking about “Flansburgh songs” vs. “Linnell songs” this week than I ever have before. I’ve always just thought about them all as “TMBG songs,” but apparently, they write a lot of stuff separately.

TRN: I pretty much always like Linnell songs better than Flans songs, but I like plenty of Flans songs.

MR: Yeah, I think the TMBG classics are mostly Linnell tracks.

TRN: It’s hard to know 100% whose songs are whose, but I usually go by who’s singing. They’re always credited jointly. I did learn today that sometimes Flans will write lyrics and then Linnell will write the music. There was at least one case of that that I read about, but I don’t remember which song. It was a song Linnell sang on.

GB: That would make sense. State Songs is very instrumental, Mono Puff is very lyrical. To the band point, it is a successful transition to the full band sound. That’s not always done well.

TRN: It was definitely done well. The only other example I can think of with two guys transitioning to a full band is Ween, and that was also done well.

MR: Admittedly, I never really thought much about the full band thing at the time. I just thought of it as “the new TMBG album.”

GB: Same. I was fourteen and it was pre-widespread internet.

TRN: Back then, I guess all the fan bitching was on alt.music.tmbg.

MR: So, what tracks stand out from John Henry?

GB: “AKA Driver,” for sure.

MR: That was always my favorite. 

TRN: I like that song, but I have a very subtle aversion to the Flansburgh anthems.

MR: I recorded a cover of it during my sophomore year in a tape-on-tape manner. That was the most “sophisticated” recording that I had made up to that point.

GB: I tried so hard to make my senior yearbook quote “Big hand’s on 120, Little hand’s on ‘E’.”

TRN: Did they think it was a drug reference?

GB: Surprisingly no. It got vetoed because they felt it was promoting reckless driving. Joke is on them, I played “End of The Tour” at full volume as I left on the last day, in a truck full of water balloons

TRN: I hope you threw those water balloons at some point. I love the fuzzy, fat guitar chords on the verses of “Sleeping in the Flowers.” I love “Unrelated Thing,” “Extra Savoir-Faire,” “O, Do Not Forsake Me.” There are too many good songs.

GB: “End of the Tour” is a nice ballad, and personally significant. “Meet James Ensor” would fit on any album. It’s pretty solid. What’s the low point? I was never big on “Thermostat.”

TRN: I love the horns/reeds on “Thermostat.” The only song I kind of don’t like is “I Should Be Allowed to Think.”

MR: “I Should Be Allowed to Think” is a standout for me.

GB: That song actually made me look up Allen Ginsberg for the first time! When I was trying to find senior quotes.

TRN: I know they were building off the Ginsberg quote, but there’s just a weird vibe to the premise of the song. I don’t hate it, but something about the lyrics just seemed kind of obnoxious. Like, you’re singing a song that’s on a major label record, you ARE allowed to shoot your mouth off. In the context of right now, it kind of sounds like an entitled male anthem.

MR: I can see that. Tim, how do you feel about all of the Alice Cooper references in “Why Must I Be Sad?”

TRN: At that point, I had never heard an Alice Cooper song, except probably “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “School’s Out,” so it was just a bunch of empty references to me at the time. I knew he was singing about Alice Cooper, but I just knew him as the guy from Wayne’s World.

MR: Just wondering. I know you’re a fan. I only get about 3-4 of the references myself.

TRN: I think they’re all from “Billion Dollar Babies.”

MR: I should get all of the Alice Cooper references. Growing up as an Arizonan, that guy was kind of everywhere…

GB: I can see his house up on the mountain from my backyard.

TRN: Nice.

GB: It looks like a nice house.

MR: Every time they need someone to throw out a first pitch, drop a ceremonial puck, they just pull out Alice Cooper’s corpse. Not like he’s doing anything else, right?

TRN: That’s just makeup.

GB: He has a sponsorship with a Jeep dealership out in Mesa. I’m sure he can fit it into his schedule. The commercials are terrible:

TRN: That’s rad as fuck.

GB: Schools out, but the deals are in!

TRN: I need to link something in this chat real quick: John Henry Sampler. So, this kind of ties into why I think I like Linnell better… As a promo for this album he, personally, created a hypercard stack with little synthesized samples of the songs on the album. Click on the link if you haven’t. It’s crazy.

MR: Cool.

GB: That is rad. Much better than the commercial.

TRN: Anyway, Linnell is some kind of savant. It comes through in his songs, and I think it’s why I like them better.

MR: I mean, Linnell wrote “They’ll Need a Crane.” That’s a “lifetime pass” song.

TRN: Yes, “They’ll Need a Crane” is perfect. That bridge is heartbreaking and funny at the same time.

MR: Absolutely. GREAT song. Anyway, John Henry is cool.

TRN: Yeah, it’s good. It gets my “good album” endorsement.

MR: Whoa, are you sure you wanna dust off ‘ye ol’ “Good Album Endorsement” this early in the chat?

TRN: I often start off by calling an album good.

GB: It is a really solid record that still holds up, mostly.

TRN: I think it holds up really well. I kind of feel like it might be a good entry point for non-fans, too.

MR: Yeah, it sort of softens some of the more bizarre elements of their earlier albums – the kind of things that might put off some prospective fans.

GB: If I was going to start with one, it’s this one or Flood.

TRN: “Sleeping in the Flowers” appealed to me as a grunge fan. I remember that – at least until the chorus.

MR: Well, perhaps we should move on to the next one. Last thoughts?

TRN: No major complaints, barely any minor ones.

GB: Same. I have enjoyed revisiting it, more than some of the others

TRN: Still love listening to this one and singing along.

MR: Yeah, I have to look hard to find things not to like about this album. It’s really solid.

Factory Showroom, LP (1996)

MR: Alright, Factory Showroom.

TRN: I really like this album, but I can see it being not exactly loved by all.

GB: Definitely weirder.

MR: Hmm. I actually always saw it as a step toward an even more conventional sound – only thirteen songs, most a bit longer and “chorus-y.”

TRN: It’s definitely listenable. I think there are just a couple weak spots for me.

GB: It’s more commercial, but it’s got some strange content choices. I love them, but they’re still weird.

TRN: “S-E-X-X-Y” is a very strange opener. I like that song now, but it took me a really long time to not just skip it altogether.

GB: I think “S-E-X-X-Y” is the weak point.

TRN: So weird to start off with that one.

GB: It is. It’s a Beck move.

MR: Yeah, “S-E-X-X-Y” is kind of an odd one for me… although, it’s not actually the opener…

GB: They had weird secret opener, didn’t they!

TRN: And, the true “opener” didn’t even work on a lot of players.

GB: Had to rewind for it on the CD or something.

MR: Yeah, the “secret” track (“Token Back to Brooklyn”) only worked on certain players. But a pretty cool way to hide a song. By that point, I pretty much expected bands to put a “hidden track” at the end of an album. It was super common.

TRN: The only other weak spot is “New York City,” because it’s kind of cheesy, but turns out that one is a cover.

MR: “NYC” is a bit cheesy, but it’s a good rocker.

GB: I definitely have put “NYC” on multiple mix tapes over the years.

TRN: “NYC” gets stuck in my head a lot, weirdly. It’s definitely catchy. So, weak spots aside, this album has some of my favorite TMBG songs on it. Spiraling Shape” is the best song on the album, I think. I like “Exquisite Dead Guy.”

GB: I love it. I once plagiarized “James K. Polk” on an AP history exam. Got an ‘A,’ too.

TRN: Nice. I love the line about him having accomplished all his goals, so he just didn’t need to run for a second term.

GB: I love that one too.

MR: I saw a quote from Flans this week that I loved, where he says they left out the parts about Polk being “evil” – which is totally true, but the song is pretty good.

TRN: Oh great. Now my hero, James K. Polk, is ruined.

MR: He sucked.

TRN: “Your Own Worst Enemy” is one of my favorites on here.

MR: Yeah, I really like that one.

GB: (Listening) “And after many glasses of work…I get paid, in the brainnnn.” Nobody is going to beat Guided by Voices, but the Giants have some absolutely great drinking lyrics.

MR: “Till My Head Falls Off” is a good power-pop rave-up. I really want to like “How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”, but it’s always been a bit…off. And it’s WAY too long for a TMBG song.

TRN: What’s “off” about “Sing Like a Girl” – the gender role stuff?

MR: It’s just a weird sentiment, I guess.

TRN: I guess it is a little weird.

MR: I mean, are they trying to make some kind of meaningful commentary on gender issues (objectification, being taken seriously)??

GB: NBC has been replaying old SNL episodes from the 90s; that song feels dated the same way some of those old sketches do. Mink Car has a couple of those moments. At the time, maybe it made sense, but now it’s a dinosaur.

TRN: I don’t know… on one hand he wants to sing like a girl, but what does “like a girl” even mean?

MR: Musically it’s a really cool song. I love the tremolo guitar and the twangy lead as well.

TRN: Love the harmony on the “wave my freak flag, higher and higher” part though.

MR: Yep, with the Mellotron choir backing it. I’m changing my assessment of it. Good song.

GB: “XTC vs. Adam Ant” forced me to reevaluate, and like, XTC.

MR: “XTC” is another Mellotron one that I just can’t love. I do like the completely random “battle” of totally unrelated bands, but it’s a bit “hairy.”

TRN: I still haven’t heard a single Adam Ant album, so I really don’t know who should win.

MR: XTC wins.

TRN: I do like the one XTC album I’ve heard, so I agree. Thomas Edison was a dick, too, going back to that theme. They finally wrote a song about Tesla, but they were really into Edison for a while. “I Can Hear You” is what I’m talking about – recorded onto an Edison cylinder.

MR: Yeah, I like “I Can Hear You.” It sounds like it was pretty much improvised, but the Edison wax cylinder thing is pretty awesome.

TRN: Apparently, they recorded several songs onto those cylinders, and they recorded them in front of an audience.

MR: Cool.

TRN: “The Bells Are Ringing” is another low point, I think – just don’t really care about that one.

GB: Yes, never liked that one. I can’t put my finger on it.

MR: “Bells” seems like it’s going for the emotional ending that “End of the Tour” had, but it doesn’t pull it off.

TRN: And “Pet Name”… I hate it in theory, because it’s so easy listening or adult contemporary or whatever, but I love it somehow.

MR: What do you guys make of “Metal Detector”?

GB: It feels like the Grinch to me, for some reason. Like it’s in Whoville.

TRN: I really like “Metal Detector.” That “neener-neener-neener” thing on the keys gets me.

MR: That’s another one where I like the music, but the lyrics are not my favorite. I can’t say that I love their “inanimate object” songs (“Dinner Bell” is an example). Sometimes those songs remind me of Presidents of the United States of America.

TRN: I never had an issue with “Metal Detector,” but I can understand disliking some of the songs that try to build a story out of something mundane, which I think they do a lot. I love those ones by PUSA though. I’m actually a huge Presidents fan.

MR: I just feel like Linnell had more talent than 30-40 of those PUSA guys put together. I think he was capable of better.

GB: They were better at it earlier in their career, but it did set up all the kids’ albums.

MR: Yeah, that makes sense. It seems like a lead-in to the kids’ stuff.

GB: “Dinner Bell” is great.

TRN: Yeah, quit talking shit about “Dinner Bell,” Matt.

MR: That and “Mammal” just seem a little weak for a band that had surprising lyrical depth.

GB: You’re crazy. Mammal” is great.

TRN: “Mammal” is a goddam classic.

MR: “She’s an Angel” is a goddam classic. “Mammal” is…okay.

TRN: I think Linnell just has range.

GB: Off topic – how do you feel about “Narrow Your Eyes”?

MR: Love it.

GB: Good.

MR: But “Narrow” is Flans, right?

TRN: I think it is. Flans sings it, but I think the point is, which other great TMBG songs does Matt hate?

GB: Yeah, that’s the point.

TRN: Matt’s on probation.

GB: For now.

TRN: Can Matt be trusted? Only time will tell.

MR: Well, I think we’ve covered every track from Factory Showroom. Final thoughts?

TRN: I still really like it despite a few low points. I still listen to it every once in a while. Still mostly new songs though, right? I feel like the next several years were them dredging up old material.

MR: Yeah, as far as I know. It’s good, but I think a pretty clear step down from John Henry.

GB: It is a step down, but about as big as I remember. It’s a “last gas for 500 miles” sign as we get to the ‘true wilderness.’

Severe Tire Damage, LP (1998)

MR: Okay, Severe Tire Damage. Not much new here. That was a serious disappointment, by the way. I had seen the title on an upcoming release flyer at the record store, and figured it was going to be a real new album. Up to that point, they had released a new album every two years, so they were due.

TRN: I feel like this whole record is just side B of the “Doctor Worm” single. At this point, I must not have been a fan in real time. I remember they had a bunch of stuff out, mostly compilations, and this just seemed like another one of those. I wasn’t expecting it to be a proper album.

GB: Matt and I were super excited for it, I remember. It was a major disappointment – and like eight songs about Planet of the Apes.

MR: Regarding the “new” stuff, “Doctor Worm” is pretty good.

TRN: I really like that song. I can relate to the “I’ll leave the door unlocked, cuz I can’t hear the doorbell” part.

GB: I still love it. I have a friend of a friend that is a doctor and calls herself “Doc Worm” on Facebook. When I asked, she said I was the first person in like ten years to get it.

TRN: Awesome.

MR: The live renditions are mostly pretty good.

GB: The live version of “Why Does the Sun Shine” is pretty great – another one that got me through an exam in school.

TRN: Love the rockin’ version of “Why Does the Sun Shine,” for sure. They had to amend it though – “the sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma.”

GB: Lol – technically true. Not as good.

TRN: I think this might be the first appearance of “They Got Lost,” but I definitely prefer this live version to the studio version.

GB: Oh god, yes. The studio version is so tedious.

TRN: I also like this live version of “First Kiss” – hate the Mink Car version.

MR: I like all of those “rocking” versions better than the studio ones. This came out right at the height of the swing revival thing, and I definitely remember thinking that the versions of “Istanbul” and “She’s Actual Size” were pretty swing-ish.

GB: The live “Ana Ng” could be good, but the mix doesn’t feel right. That song deserves better.

TRN: This live version is weird. Something about the keyboards.

MR: That’s a weak one for me.

GB: That’s the test. Hopefully you meant the live “Ana Ng” is weak, and not, you know, “Ana Ng.”

MR: Yeah. Studio “Ana Ng” is god-tier.

TRN: Definitely.

GB: Okay, I think we can trust him again.

TRN: I suppose. 

MR: I actually think the best songs aren’t great in these live incarnations (“Ana Ng,” “She’s an Angel,” “Birdhouse in Your Soul”).

GB: Agree on all counts.

TRN: Some songs are already perfect in the studio and can’t be improved upon.

GB: “Till My Head Falls Off” works, though.

MR: I feel like a lot of the Factory Showroom stuff seemed redundant in these live takes. Not much “new” about them.

GB: Except a paycheck.

MR: “Laugh hard, it’s a long way to the bank.”

TRN: It’s weird, even as a live album. Most of the live recordings were apparently recorded during sound check and have no audience sound anyway.

MR: Didn’t know that.

TRN: I like “About Me.” For some reason, the Spotify version doesn’t have the Planet of the Apes songs.

MR: You’re not missing much. Those are tedious. It’s all poorly recorded and just kind of a goof.

GB: Which Apes is best? I’m going to say “Conquest.”

TRN: I have no idea. I’d have to pull the songs up on YouTube or something. “Conquest” is the best movie though.

MR: Can’t say that I care for any of the Apes stuff, beyond one listen.

GB: (Re: Severe Tire Damage) On the “take it or leave it front”: leave it.

TRN: Skippable, except for “Doctor Worm.”

MR: There’s an EP worth of strong stuff here; “Doctor Worm” and a few of the live ones that are interesting re-workings of the studio versions.

TRN: Yeah, definitely could have been an EP. They did actually put out a pared down version of the album that’s just called Live. Looks like they picked most of the useless stuff though.

GB: I seem to recall that.

MR: So, even less necessary than a largely unnecessary release?

TRN: Somehow, yes.

MR: “Laugh hard, it’s a long way to the bank.”

TRN: I already did.

MR: Oh, wait, in the spirit of Live: “Laugh, it’s a bank.”

MR: Do we talk about Mono Puff now? We skipped it sequentially.

TRN: I don’t know, should we just lump all the solo ones together?

MR: We never really decided on that. Let’s just do a quick take on all three now. The other two fit in around here anyway.

GB: None are super strong, but there are some good starts to things. I was wondering about it, like, did they start families or something? There is such a clear change around 1998 or so.

TRN: Not sure about the family thing, and I don’t know about Flans, but when Linnell was getting State Songs together, they referred to it as his “Ringo walk” – as in, the section of A Hard Day’s Night where Ringo just has to go for a walk and get away from the other guys for a minute.

MR: This first Mono Puff album [Unsupervised] is weird. I think I liked just about every track less than the previous one. Of course, “Nixon’s the One” reverses that trend.

GB: Yes. When we look back, I can see it. Nixon is the one.

TRN: Interesting. I like it, but I didn’t spend much time with it, so I don’t know if I have much for highlights or lowlights. Even though I like Linnell’s songs better, I think Flans has more of an accessible pop sensibility. His songs are more “normal” and potentially more listenable for the average person, and outside of TMBG he doesn’t seem to care too much about being “clever” in his songwriting. These are just songs. Normal songs.

MR: Yeah, the title track seems like a pretty good – slightly quirky – pop song.

TRN: I think the normal-ness of the songs makes them kind of boring overall.

GB: Good call. “Careless Santa” is good. “Backstabbing Liar” is pretty decent.

TRN: I’m just talking about Unsupervised. I like It’s Fun to Steal a lot more. It’s got a lot more variety and experimentation. It’s back to being clever at times. It’s just more interesting.

MR: I think “Creepy” is the best song from either Mono Puff album.

TRN: Interesting. I like that song, but I like “Poison Flowers,” “Extra Crispy,” and “Night Security” better. “Pretty Fly” is a cool one too.

MR: George and I have a totally “late-90s” story about this one. We were in Southern California at this massive ass mall…

TRN: Ooh, an ass mall…

MR: We had both been looking for It’s Fun to Steal for a while. George finds it for some ridiculous price that only could have been charged at a mall in Southern California ($22 or so?).

GB: Sounds right. Probably was a Virgin Megastore.

MR: We go across the concourse to the other massive record store, and I find it for $15.

TRN: Nice.

MR: Of course, by that point, George had been bragging about buying it for a solid 10-15 minutes.

TRN: Oh, he bought it for $22?

GB: Yep.

TRN: Yikes.

GB: Long story short, I went hungry that night.

MR: That’s what I mean by totally “late-90s.” Like, where else was he gonna find it, right? Gotta spend the $22.

GB: Thanks, Flansburgh.

TRN: Thanks, Virgin Megastore. I think it might have been in my torrenting days when I first heard it.

GB: I have a long history of overpaying for mediocre records, so I can make Matt jealous for short periods of time. I’ve made up for it many times over with an external hard drive.

MR: By the end of that year (1999) we had both managed to get CD burners, which helped avoid some of the most egregious purchases. I mean, you might still pay $18.99 for a CD, but at least two of us ended up with it.

GB: What’s that Bono quote: “bad music is killing music…”?

TRN: Bono killed plenty of music.

MR: Take that, Bono!

TRN: State Songs is pretty solid. I never had a copy of my own, but I had definitely listened to it before this at some point. I do remember seeing Linnell perform one of the state songs on Letterman.

GB: Of the three, I’d actually take State Songs. I got it the day it came out; found the little post card they gave me with it.

MR: Yeah, the best of the three solo ones. Today was the first time I had heard it in quite a while.

TRN: Lots of highlights, barely any weak spots.

GB: “The Songs of the 50 States” is the weak one. Otherwise, they’re all at least engaging.

MR: Hmm, I love the line, “I’m not gonna say they’re great, I ain’t gonna say they ain’t,” so that redeems that song on its own.

TRN: The only ones that didn’t grab me were the deliberately slow ones, like “Idaho” – but “West Virginia,” “Pennsylvania,” “New Hampshire,” “South Carolina”? Solid.

GB: The liner notes are great. They were all fake facts. If I recall, Montana had a governor and an anti-governor, who were rivals.

MR: We have another story about this one… This album prompted George and I to embark on a similarly ambitious “concept album” project. We were gonna write a song about each American president.

TRN: Oh man.

MR: We wrote about a half dozen or so.

GB: Oh yeah! Man, can’t believe I forgot about that.

MR: I’ve got a tape somewhere with some low-quality demos. I’ll have to dig it out.

TRN: I found a quote from Linnell about this album, and I think it offers some insight to his writing process in general:

“I decided to start writing songs with the name of the states as a way of avoiding having to come up with song titles. I suddenly had fifty song titles and I could write fifty songs based on that. This is always one of my problems with writing lyrics is I’m just so lazy I don’t want to have to think up all the words and what it means. … It’s just a way to create more music without having to get bogged down in verbal ideas.”

GB: Good approach.

TRN: It’s interesting how he describes himself as lazy, and maybe that’s why he writes songs sometimes about food and animals and whatnot – because he doesn’t want to have to come up with a whole concept for a song. He can just write about something he sees in his house instead.

GB: Free writing exercise, almost.

TRN: I think it’s a great method.

MR: Flans was always the hand-shaker, business guy, hype man. Linnell’s pretty low-key, as I understand it. I can see him viewing himself as “lazy” next to the more “blue collar” Flans.

TRN: He could just be being modest too, but I definitely understand the value in being able to write about something that already exists, and just writing vaguely cryptic words around the topic.

GB: Explains the diversity of sound on the record.

MR: State Songs feels much more in the spirit of TMBG than Mono Puff, which I think speaks to Linnell’s outsized role in the duo dynamic.

TRN: Yeah, I don’t think Linnell is capable of writing anything other than a TMBG song, whereas Flans’ natural state might be a bit less quirky.

GB: Good observation.

Long Tall Weekend, LP (1999)

MR: Alright, Long Tall Weekend. This is where that CD burner first came in handy.

GB: I bought it online (first time I ever did that), and burned it for Matt (also a first) – took like six hours. Off a Gateway computer…

MR: Gateway 2000. In a cow box! I got one about a month after George did.

TRN: The future is now (then).

MR: What an age we live(d) in.

GB: And we got our first AOL email accounts…

TRN: Oh boy.

GB: …to which we both tried to outdo each other with TMBG references. Mine was FreeExpo67.

MR: Mine was Boxcar32.

GB: Matt’s was better.

TRN: You mean your AIM names?

GB: Yep, and email. Both.

TRN: I never had AOL email, but I did use AIM back in the day.

MR: “You’ve got mail!”

TRN: Good times.

MR: Dial up, man.

GB: First time I used it was to buy this album.

TRN: “Get off the computer, I have to use the phone!”

GB: You can imagine the stress (and bill) for that download.

TRN: You’d pretty much have to do it overnight.

MR: I spent a whole weekend downloading Frank Black’s unreleased album Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day from Napster. What do we like from Long Tall Weekend?

TRN: I have a weird relationship with this album because I never owned it, but would later own a copy of They Got Lost on CD, which has a lot of the same songs. This is another album that feels more like a compilation. My understanding is that fans had heard most of the songs before in some form. Comp or not, it’s pretty solid, although maybe not entirely cohesive.

MR: I never knew how to think of it – album? comp? – because of the bizarre idea that I had it, without having it. Different times… They were all new songs to me at the time, aside from “They Got Lost,” and “Token Back to Brooklyn,” which was the hidden track on Factory Showroom

GB: It was all new to me at the time. I remember liking it more than I did on a revisit today. We also saw them live right around this time…

MR: At a (now defunct) venue called the Cajun House in Scottsdale. A little yuppy-ish.

GB: I’d maybe heard a couple, but “Edith Head,” “Rat Patrol,” and so many others were first listens for me. It’s not cohesive, but a lot of winners.

TRN: I really like this version of “Older.”

MR: Better than the Mink Car one.

TRN: I actually do like the Mink Car “Older” too, though. I really like “Reprehensible” and “Certain People I Could Name.”

MR: I really like “Maybe I Know,” but I LOVE Lesley Gore’s original. I didn’t hear her version until the last few years though. Always knew the TMBG version was a cover.

TRN: I’ve never heard the original.

MR: Here you go:

TRN: TMBG’s is a pretty faithful cover, then. “Counterfeit Faker” is an example of them weirdly using almost the exact same title as an old song for some reason, like the “Hotel Detective” thing.

GB: I get “Operators Are Standing By” stuck in my head monthly. I used “Drinkin’” as the background music on my answering machine for a couple years in college. I was weirdly really proud of that (still am).

TRN: “On Earth My Nina” is one of the highlights for me.

GB: Great song.

TRN: Another example of Linnell being a savant.

MR: So what’s the deal with that one? Is it recorded backwards?

TRN: It’s recorded forwards. He listened to one of their other songs backwards (“Thunderbird”), and wrote down the words he heard, then basically sang these weird backwards nonsense words as a new song. He’s insane.

MR: That’s cool.

GB: That is insane. On “Edith Head”: “She was talking to herself, not too simple and not too kind, and I walked on by, it was complicated, and it stuck in my mind” – is one of my favorite short stories in a song, ever.

TRN: I love “Edison Museum,” despite Edison being a dick. The vocal is just great. The way he says “Black Maria” sticks with me. The singer is actually a DJ from WFMU, not one of the Johns.

MR: I like Edison Museum as well. I was gonna say, that has to be a guest vocalist. It’s a really bizarre song though. It starts sort of like a commercial, but then gets really dark.

GB: I remember “Edison” being our favorite on release day. I love the kid punishment line. 

TRN: Like, it’s educational, but also a warning: “NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.”

MR: “This place is awesome! Stay the fuck out!”

TRN: Did they put that one on No!?

MR: Yeah. Same version.

TRN: That’s kind of funny. Scare the kids a little.

GB: The 70s hair of “Rat Patrol” made it an instant classic.

TRN: I do like that one a lot.

MR: I like “Lullaby to Nightmares.” It’s one of my younger brother’s “inner circle” TMBG songs.

GB: Has a “World’s Address” kinda feel, but also that surrealism. Good song.

TRN: That song has almost the same trumpet part as “Sleeping in the Flowers.”

MR: A little more subdued, but yeah, similar.

GB: Both share that ‘swing.’ I love the 1920s Broadway feel of “Reprehensible.” I was working in the garage earlier today and caught myself randomly humming it to myself.

MR: TMBG definitely write earworms, that’s for sure.

TRN: I love that song. I like the idea that he’s maybe the devil or something? I don’t know the lyrics well enough to know if he’s a specific character.

GB: Reminds me of the ballroom in The Shining.

MR: Last thoughts?

TRN: A solid collection of catchy tunes.

GB: I actually really still love this album. It’s disjointed, a fan’s record, but there are too many good moments.

MR: Surprisingly substantial for an “online only” release, at a time in which no one was doing “online only” releases.

TRN: It’s almost a “best of” –  just not “of” songs you’ve necessarily heard before.

MR: Makes sense.

GB: We need to do a brief album cover diversion.

TRN: The guy who did this album cover follows me on Twitter – Michael Kupperman.

GB: Did he do any others? Feels like early TMBG to me – kinda drinky bird/snowman.

TRN: That was Tony Millionaire. He follows me too. He did the nautical-themed stuff like Then: The Earlier Years. I don’t know if Kupp did any others.

GB: John Henry and Long Tall Weekend lead the way, but I’ve actually secretly always liked Mink Car.

TRN: Blasphemy! Never liked that cover. Something about the design of that one didn’t fit the band I thought I knew, although it does fit the album pretty well.

GB: The model builder in me is drawn to it. Mink feels like they lost their own narrative, even to the cover. It doesn’t fit the band, very true. The others do. Even State Songs, which is why I wanted the discussion.

TRN: I love the two cigars on It’s Fun to Steal.

MR: I always liked TMBG’s art vibe – the snowman shirt was one of my favorite band tees ever – but I feel like their album cover game was a little off during this era. Long Tall Weekend is good, but – of course – I didn’t actually have it.

TRN: Yeah, the kids for John Henry are kind of weird, although the stuff with the “THEY” skull is kind of interesting. Did you guys have the Back to Skull EP?

MR: Nope.

GB: I didn’t.

TRN: A more interesting cover, I think:

GB: I actually like the original. That feels more Smashing Pumpkins-ish.

TRN: I don’t dislike it. I just like that skull. Anyway, they could never top the cover of Apollo 18.

GB: Nope, never to be beat. It’s an absolute classic album cover.

MR: I like the first two more than Apollo, but it’s great too.

TRN: I do love the Lincoln cover. I like the cropping of Flood, too. You can unfold the whole picture, but something about just half that guy’s face being visible is cool.

Mink Car, LP (2001)

MR: Alright. Mink Car.

TRN: Ugh, I’m listening to it right now – low volume, so my roommate can’t hear.

GB: Lucky roommate. It’s not bad. It’s just not great.

TRN: It’s just got so many missteps. For example, I like Soul Coughing, but why is there a Soul Coughing song on my TMBG album?

GB: It definitely swings and misses several times.

MR: I don’t hate this album, but yeah, a lot of missteps. Here’s a perfect summation for me: George mentioned that we saw them live in the fall of 1999. They played “Cyclops Rock” at the show, but the line wasn’t, “I’m sick, like Chucky was sick.” It was, “I’m sick, like Nixon was sick,” which is a badass line. “Chucky” is just some dumb film reference.

GB: Yeah, I remember. It was so much better, and the crowd loved it.

TRN: I was doing college radio when this came out, and we got some kind of promo disc with some demos that were to be on this forthcoming album. The only one I remember for sure was “I’ve Got a Fang.” At the time I thought it was a really cool song and I was looking forward to the album, but then the album version was awful. I think it was simply because of the addition of that annoying jazz ride cymbal part. It sounds like they made some dumb changes to more than one song before the album came out.

GB: “Mr. Xcitement” is soooooo bad. “X” is there for the “X-treme.” As I’ve alluded Mink Car came out on 9/11.

TRN: Right, it was a 9/11 album. That was a Tuesday.

GB: I bought two other albums that day, and felt like a huge asshole in doing so.

MR: Love and Theft and Rockin’ the Suburbs.

TRN: Rockin’ the Suburbs came out that day too?

GB: I was the only person in the store, and they had the news on, and I was buying a TMBG record. It got some looks. Love and Theft is great… the other two. They’re okay.

MR: Here’s the thing: Dylan felt like a reasonable soundtrack to that insane moment; Ben Folds had some songs that were really poignant; TMBG just felt ridiculous.

TRN: There are some pretty good songs on Rockin’ the Suburbs.

MR: And one shitty one.

TRN: I actually like the title track. I know it’s stupid, but I like it.

MR: Ugh. HATE it.

GB: Suburbs is a good record, overall.

TRN: What’s the one where the guy climbs the tree on acid? Great song.

GB: “Not the Same.”

TRN: Yeah.

GB: Awesome song.

MR: Yeah, I really love a lot of those songs. “Gone” has always been a favorite.

TRN: I’m gonna put that album on instead of Mink Car. Ah, “Annie Waits.” She sure does… Oh yeah, “Gone” is good, and “Still Fighting It,” classic.

GB: That’s how bad Mink Car is; we’re talking about a mid-level Ben Folds record instead.

MR: I don’t love the “everything was recontextualized by 9/11” narrative, but it kind of was.

TRN: Yeah, 9/11 changed a lot, but Mink Car was already bad before it hit the shelves.

MR: Mink Car was just really poorly timed, and – ultimately – just wasn’t a great album.

TRN: “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” sounds like it’s supposed to be a satire of club music, or a parody… but it’s actually just a club song.

MR: Yeah, I never got the fan love of “It’s So Loud.” It’s apparently well-liked.

GB: Really? I could see it as a club song/satire song. Good to cash in.

TRN: I think part of the reason I don’t like this one is because I was at college at this point, and getting to know a class of nerd that I wasn’t a part of – the Magic the Gathering nerds – and some of them were into TMBG to an annoying level, and blindly liked songs like “Man, It’s So Loud in Here.”

GB: “Hovering Sombrero” is “Exquisite Dead Guy” rehashed. “Drink” has some good one-off lines.

MR: “Drink” does have some decent lines, but talk about poor timing: “what words rhyme with buried alive” was a tough line to hear for the first time on 9/11.

GB: Yeah, that’s a terrible 9/11 tie back. God, bad timing. This was the point where Malcom in the Middle started to get big momentum too.

TRN: Love Malcolm in the Middle though.

MR: George really wants to blame Malcolm for the demise of TMBG.

GB: I do. I blame Frankie Muniz for a lot of things.

TRN: Don’t talk shit about Frankie, he’s had a lot of concussions (this is true).

GB: I blame them because, while commercial to this point, they become a nerd parody (more so). Malcolm made them embrace their worst habits, because they got paid for it. 

TRN: Malcolm mostly used existing TMBG songs, so I don’t know if I buy this connection. It definitely recontextualized them though.

GB: But it was very much ‘our thing’ and that went away the second they played “Pencil Rain” in the first episode.

MR: I still don’t find myself reaching for this album all that often, but I wonder if it maybe doesn’t fail for another contextual reason for us. All of us found our way to TMBG in our early teens – more or less. That’s perfect music for smart, nerdy kids, but by the time that Mink Car came out, I was a full-on adult. I don’t think even a great TMBG album would’ve hit me in the same way that even John Henry had at fifteen.

GB: True; there is very much a 12-17 year-old allegiance to TMBG.

TRN: Lincoln was pretty adult, though.

MR: But of course, the old ones were all “grandfathered in” at that point. I mean, there was a five-year gap between proper TMBG albums. Those five years were transformative in every conceivable way, not the least of which was my musical tastes.

TRN: Oh yeah. There have been several bands in my life that I was devoted to and then just stopped paying attention to for whatever reason. Likely had to do with my growing up, but bands also start to suck as they go along. That’s why The Rolling Stones don’t bother trying to write new songs anymore. They know they’ll just suck.

MR: Yeah, I think the decline is real from 1994-2001, but I also feel like there were some other important contextual factors.

GB: Probably an analogy to The Simpsons in there somewhere.

TRN: Oh man, The Simpsons has been in the wilderness for a long time.

MR: Three times as long as it was great, right?

TRN: I think so, yeah. Is it thirty years now?

GB: I liken it to a friend with a drinking problem that you sort of have to walk away from. You wish for the best, but you can’t get involved anymore.

TRN: Trying to think if I actually like any songs on Mink Car. It’s hard with a Ben Folds album playing. The only good songs on Mink Car are “Hovering Sombrero,” “Hopeless Bleak Despair,” “Older,” and “Wicked Little Critta.”

GB: Sounds right.

MR: Those are all fine. Final thoughts on Mink Car?

TRN: Disappointing.

MR: Agree.

GB: Yeah, good word for it.

TRN: But probably came along at the right time, like you were saying. The perfect time to get off the bandwagon. There’s only one post Mink Car TMBG album that I’ve listened to in its entirety more than once – Nanobots.

GB: Same.

MR: I know none of us know those later albums very well. It may be interesting to try them at a later point to see what, if anything, we’ve been missing out on.

TRN: I’ve thought about doing that personally. Nanobots is actually pretty good, so maybe they’re good again?

MR: Well, we may have to reconvene down the road for a sequel to this wilderness chat.


MR: Alright, the draft. First pick, Tim:

TRN: “Extra Savoir-Faire”

GB: “Reprehensible”

MR: “The End of the Tour.” Round two:

TRN: “O, Do Not Forsake Me”

GB: “James K. Polk”

MR: “Maybe I Know.” Round three:

TRN: “Spiraling Shape”

GB: “Rat Patrol”

MR: “AKA Driver.” Round four:

TRN: “Your Own Worst Enemy”

GB: “Doctor Worm”

MR: “Lullaby to Nightmares.” Round five:

TRN: “South Carolina”

GB: Nice.

TRN: It’s so good, and hilarious.

GB: “Wicked Little Critta”

MR: “Unsupervised.” Last round:

TRN: “On Earth My Nina”

GB: “Meet James Ensor”

TRN: (“Edison Museum,” Matt.)

GB: Yeah.

MR: If you wanted it, you should have picked it. I’m going with “Till My Head Falls Off.”

GB: Can we change “Wicked Little Critta”?

MR: Yes. Please do.

GB: “Edison Museum”

MR: Consider it done. By the way, six songs from Long Tall Weekend, zero from Mink Car.

GB: Checks out.

Authors

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

  • Tim Ryan Nelson is a procrastinator and agitator who sometimes appears on the “Strange Currencies Podcast” to tell Glenn why he is wrong. Tim refused to participate in ranking the Beatles’ songs for Strange Currencies Music but was eager to rank their albums, if only to ensure that Revolver didn’t win. His favorite music is anything unpopular and annoying. He also likes kittens.

  • George Budney is a guest writer for Strange Currencies Music. Though he has no musical talent himself, he has the good fortune of friends that do. His interests include music, old cars, dogs, and other fringe pursuits.

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