Hang on, hang on tight. The new release from eclectic alternative geek-rockers They Might Be Giants is an interactive multimedia experience geared toward children of all ages. Sure, this is their first officially designated “kids” album. But as it incorporates the strange charms inherent in their past work, the new CD is not much of a stretch at all. Instead, it is a delightful niche for the sort of short and often odd songs that populated many an earlier album. Imagine the short sound bites of “Fingertips” (off Apollo 18) extended and explored a bit further, then conjure up interactive animated accompaniment. Please pass the milk please, indeed—this is fun for the whole family!
NO! is everything an enhanced CD should be. When you put it into your computer, the magic begins. An opening yellow screen presents you with certain items to click on while music from one of the songs plays (this music varies). Each of the items on the bottom row leads to a song—allowing you access to 13 of the CD’s 17 tracks. Many of these are interactive—and all provide lyrics for singing along - as well as playful instructions about what to do while watching and listening. It’s inviting and addicting—and really fun—oh, and I guess kids might like it too.
The Chopping Block, (www.choppingblock.com) a graphic design firm in NY that has worked with TMBG before, has done all the impressive design, illustration and programming (and if you visit their site, you’ll be treated to the firm’s TMBG-penned theme song). The idea of doing such a project has long been a desire for the two Johns after two decades or so of being They Might Be Giants and writing songs that sometimes seem like bizarre children’s anthems anyway (e.g. “Chess Piece Face”,“32 Footsteps”, “Pencil Rain”, “Cowtown”, just to name a few of a long list of possible choices). Nonsense syllables have always been part of the Linnell and Flansburgh oeuvre and silly ideas comprise much of the extended repertoire. Even “Particle Man” is simple enough in structure to pass muster as a children’s song (albeit a strange one).
Additionally, there is the education factor (which seems to come mostly from Linnell). Many of the past songs have contained information that could be construed as educational (“Meet James Ensor”, “James K. Polk”, and “Mammal” etc.). The one prior “kid’s song” that TMBG wrote (“Why Does the Sun Shine—The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas”) has become a favorite at live shows and combines scientific facts with a catchy tune.
So a CD geared toward children is not very far-fetched at all. Rather, it seems a logical extension from what has gone before (and the multimedia factor adds to your enjoyment).
The best news is that the music, for the most part, remains melodically strong. The CD opens with “Fibber Island” a narrative description of an imaginary place you can get to by “fibbing in your mind.” It’s a silly island (night or day—as you’ll see in the visual interactive accompaniment) chock full of rubber guitars, square wheels, pies and chocolate and giraffes you can ride.
“Robot Parade” has an impressive multimedia side, wherein clicking with a mouse can launch little robots or make a giant cyborg dance and fly. It’s technology as built by and subservient to children (a powerful and tantalizing fantasy).
The title song is a detailed accounting of that negative term, its formation and applications: “Finger pointing / eyebrows low / mouth in the shape of the letter o.” The on-screen enhanced version allows one to turn blocks of NO into blocks of YES and then into tall flowers.
Next up is the enchantingly infectious “Where Do They Make Balloons?” This song, featuring vocals from bassplayer and co-writer Danny Weinkauf (of TMBG’s backup Band of Dans) takes a riff from Colin Moulding’s XTC classic “The Meeting Place” and employs it to educate about geography and commerce in a most unassuming way (“Marmalade’s from Scotland / Rugs from Pakistan / Mexico has jumping beans and cars are from Japan”). The accompanying interactive piece makes this learning painless and pleasant.
Many East Coast baby boomers will get a smile from the cover of the public service commercial theme “In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle,” sung wonderfully well by Robin “Goldie” Goldwasser (a/k/a Mrs. Flansburgh). You can play safely amid traffic on the interactive side here, while enjoying this fine rendition of the Vic Mizzy classic (right up there with his more famous themes for The Addams Family and Green Acres TV shows).
“Violin” really works best along with the interactive visuals. It’s another fine melody that utilizes verbal non-sequiturs as lyrics, allowing They Might Be Giants to be plenty goofy (sort of a distant cousin to “Exquisite Dead Guy”) in semi-serious fashion while getting you to click away furiously to make presidential heads appear or disappear or even to locate those pesky specks of dust. Kudos goes to guest players Garo Yellin (cello) and Krystof Witek (violin).
Nicholas Hill makes a guest appearance doing vocals on the scarey “Edison Museum.” This tune, co-written by Brian Dewan, presents said museum as a haunted mansion good for quelling quarrelsome kids (say that ten times fast).
“The House at the Top of the Tree” might be my favorite multimedia piece. This song, a circular tale of you sitting in a chair in a room in a house at the top of a tree, offers up a truly interactive challenge. You have to feed the hungry mouse the potato chips that the dog in the car drives by and deposits there in order to prevent the tree from being eaten (which in turn topples the house). Sound logical to you? In the strange alternate TMBG universe, this makes perfect sense.
The interactive fun continues with a number of short ditties. “Clap Your Hands” takes up from where a few songs from the recent Mink Car left off. It’s some fine dance-able rhythmic merriment with simple lyrical commands. “Wake Up Call” similarly trades off rhythms and sounds with no lyrics at all.
“I Am Not Your Broom” is slightly more than a minute of Linnell arguing with his broom. The broom rebels: “Another life awaits me and I’m leaving you today,” he declares and has had enough of his life of servitude. Perhaps this will teach kids to be independent, or perhaps not. Either way, it’s amusing.
“I Am a Grocery Bag” is basically another minute’s worth of a grocery list set to music (but things happen when you click on the food items).
One of the non-interactive songs here is an odd yet charming John Linnell song “Four of Two” that trades a bit melodically on the classic “Grandfather’s Clock”, yet updates matters lyrically with the story of how a broken clock preserves hopes of love. This song literally is timeless.
Another non-interactive track “John Lee Supertaster” lets John Flansburgh flex his funk in a tale of these eclectic special folk who walk among us and are blessed with the rare power to taste things most intensely (“Every flavor explodes!”). The laid-back ballad of Flansburgh’s “Lazyhead & Sleepybones” is a lovely song about two tired friends who can’t seem to agree on anything, particular word choices.
“Bed Bed Bed” is a bedtime anthem for the newest generation. A solid thumping rhythm propels the song ahead, along with a cacophony of horns and other sounds, even a ping-pong game. You get a good visual show of it too if you play it on a Mac or PC.
“Sleepwalkers” is another Linnell track that seems to carry on from the sensibility of “Bells Are Ringing” on Factory Showroom. This time the zombies are the legion girls and boys who are sleepwalkers. This slightly off-kilter song urges us to “please don’t make any noise, cry out loud, or stamp your feet”—for god’s sake—leave the sleepwalkers undisturbed!
A short attention span will be well rewarded here (not a problem for much of today’s modern world, I bet). You get seventeen tunes in just under 34 minutes (fairly easy math there). In fact, only two songs cross that precarious three-minute barrier—but the multimedia aspect makes short songs seem much longer (in a positive way).
NO! should be They Might Be Giants’ most marketable CD yet—as it offers sporting sights and sounds for kids of all ages. One can only wonder why they hadn’t undertaken such a project before—this is pure unadulterated fun, masterfully executed. Give it as a gift to families with young kids, or better yet, treat yourself.
Perhaps TMBG finally are getting their due—after years of being out of synch with the general populous, things are changing in this new millennium: Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle has popularized TMBG’s “Boss of Me” and a Chrysler commercial recently adopted a piece of a track from the recent Mink Car (Yeah Yeah).
This commercial acceptance is new for a group that has lived on the fringe of quirky irreverence for so long. But you know what? This marvelous “kid’s CD” should only extend their newfound influence further. Conceivably, there might be a whole new generation fanatically devoted to TMBG’s two Johns. Picture a future utopia with silly young people keen with arcane humor humming deliciously fun pop music. Would I mind such a world? The answer currently is playing on my computer’s CD drive: NO!.