Anyone unfamiliar with the band’s output might be surprised to learn that They Might Be Giants are without a doubt one of the best pop songwriting duos in recent music history. Even a cursory examination of their discography reveals a mastery of the pop songwriting form that would shame Rivers Cuomo. Unfortunately, this is often (almost always?) obscured by the gimmicky trappings of the nerd-rock genre which the group practically invented. Their best-selling album, after all, was 1990’s Flood, absolutely filled with jokey weirdness like “Particle Man” and their cover of “Istanbul, Not Constantinople”, songs that will remain forever associated with Doctor Demento and Tiny Toons. While these kind of bona fides may be enough to ensure the group a long afterlife in bar trivia contests, they hardly inspire the kind of fawning dedication reserved for indie legends like the Replacements or the Pixies, even if they’ve been around almost as long as the former and much longer than the latter. (They even wrote a song about the Replacements, for goodness’ sake.)
I would assert that in this regard They Might Be Giants—dual Johns Linnell and Flansburg—have repeatedly sabotaged their own best interests. I can think of any number of TMBG songs that are the equal to Paul Westerberg’s best slices of midwestern melancholy, or Frank Black’s twisted surreality, but the band themselves have seemed at times almost to reject these aspects of their music in favor of accentuating the nerd-friendly goofiness that makes them so easy to dismiss. TMBG have attracted a rabid cult following by appealing to hyper-intelligent geeks looking for social affirmation from their musical tastes—if that sounds dismissive, the reader should keep in mind that I speak from intimate experience. Growing up awkward and smart in middle America breeds isolation and resentment. For many, discovering They Might Be Giants is akin to finding a long-lost twin who understands everything about you in the most uncanny fashion. Putting on headphones and blasting Lincoln while your peers are listening to Metallica or Boyz II Men or Nickelback can be a potent assertion of identity for those still trying to find their way in a world that remains stridently unreceptive to the hidden brilliance of nerdkind.
But the assertion of such a strong cultural identity can easily obscure the artifacts at the heart of the phenomenon. Keeping a tongue firmly in cheek is (usually) a sure-fire way to be ignored by critical tastemakers, and the silliness that endears the group to the hordes of Monty Python-quoting dungeon masters who flock to their shows acts like kryptonite for almost everyone else. Hello Radio is uniquely positioned, then, to be the rare tribute album that actually fulfills a legitimate need in terms of paying tribute to the artist in question. The tracks on this compilation shine a spotlight primarily on the group’s songwriting chops at the expense of their silliness. Those looking for covers of “Particle Man” or “James K. Polk” or “Meet James Ensor” need not apply—for the most part the tracks chosen for coverage here are representative of the group’s more considered side. I hesitate to say “mature”, but the best tracks in the group’s catalog have always spoken from a far more worldly perspective than that implied by, say, “Robot Parade”.
But with that said, a few of the duo’s more whimsical compositions to do show up. “Boat of Car”, a throwaway gag from the group’s first album that has incredibly become a live staple, is covered by Receptor. It’s not much of a track to begin with—a weird synth piece built around a non-sequitor vocal about boats and cars. Turning it into a pseudo-jungle remix of Kelis’ “Bossy” hardly helps matters. Steve Burns’, formerly the dude from Blue’s Clues but currently building a career in indie rock on the foundation of a really fierce Flaming Lips impression, covers “Dead”, another willfully strange sketch, this time from Flood. The original of the song is presented as a bare-bones acoustic demo, so of course it makes sense to transform it into a lush, Yoshimi-esque pocket symphony, complete with horn fanfare, glitchy breakbeats and glistening harps. I would not go so far as to say it was a bad track, merely a baffling decision, an extreme example of of gilding the lily past the point of absurdity. MySpace heroes OK Go turn “Letterbox”, also off Flood, into a lo-fi trip-hop track of the type you might expect mid-period Massive Attack to produce, if they felt like building tracks around excessively clever tongue-twisting wordplay (which, thankfully, they would never do in a million years).
But the group’s better songs inspire far better performances. Self begin the album with a cover of “Ana Ng”, the lead track off Lincoln. One of the group’s signature tracks, it’s such a well-constructed piece of songcraft as to be practically foolproof—and sure enough, even though I’d never before heard of Self they deliver a fine interpretation, substituting the original’s herky-jerky punk anxiety with power-pop dramatics. They also substitute the original breakdown with the one from “Thermostat”, off John Henry, which is odd but, hey, it’s a kick for old-timers like myself who recognize these things without even having to think about it. The Long Winters deliver a copy of “Pet Name” that successfully translates the weary romantic languor of the original to a bare-bones alt-rock template. If the cover doesn’t quite deliver the knockout punch of the slinky, uncharacteristically sparse original, it manages to achieve a lot with a louche Guided By Voices attitude.
“Narrow Your Eyes” is yet another track about the end of a relationship—an odd recurring theme for such a supposedly chirpy band—and David Miller provides an adequately frantic reading. Charles Douglas, unfortunately, totally misreads “She’s An Angel”, turning one of the group’s most unabashedly romantic tracks into a by-the-numbers mid-tempo DIY indie rocker. Frank Black shows up for “Road Movie to Berlin”. It sounds fairly tossed-off, but that’s hardly a bad thing—the cover fits pretty nicely with Black’s recent excursion into bluesy Americana. This is the very best kind of cover, showcasing a familiar song in a totally different light so as to bring entirely new angles to the surface. The weird synth-pop production of the original obscured the sardonic virtues of the Johns’ lyrics. Surely a line like “We were once so close to heaven, / Peter came out and gave us medals, / Declaring us the nicest of the damned” was just waiting for a day when Black would sing it.
The Wrens cover of “They’ll Need a Crane” is one of the most challenging tracks on here, insomuch as it deviates quite significantly from the original. Whereas the original was, like “Ana Ng”, a frantic rocker, the Wrens recast it as an epic dirge a la The The. I didn’t think it worked at first but I’ll admit that after a few listenings its grown on me considerably. It’s a pretty grim song on the face of it and the low-key instrumentation fits. This Radiant Boy turn in a fairly conservative version of “Don’t Let’s Start”—the group’s first single as well as an unlikely MTV hit—but that’s not really a bad thing. Jason Trachtenburg provides a fairly useless cover of “Doctor Worm”, one of the duo’s less interesting tracks (it’s basically built on the idea of a worm playing drums, and once you get the joke that’s the entire song). It’s certainly a competent cover, but of all the songs to cover why choose this one? No one picked “Out of Jail” or “Twisting”.
But the disc wins back my good will with Fluid Ounces’ take on “It’s Not My Birthday”—one of the band’s more obscure non-album tracks but also one of their best. I still have never figured out just what the connection is between this song and “MacArthur Park”, but it’s always been one of my favorites. “Another First Kiss” is the most recent track to appear on the disc, via a cover by Brett Kull. It mines much of the same territory as “Pet Name”, albeit not as incredibly depressing. Fittingly, the album finishes with Hotel Lights’ cover of “End of the Tour”. I’d put “End of the Tour” up for any competition of all-time great They Might Be Giants songs—it’s probably their most honestly emotional, perhaps their finest hour. The cover hews fairly close to the original, but considering the original’s power that’s really not a bad thing at all.
Hello Radio is about as patchy as They Might Be Giants’ output would lead the listener to expect, with a few unfortunate experiments and a couple silly missteps that keep the album from being as essential as it could have been. But when it clicks it serves as a timely reminder of just how good these guys are, and how underrated they continue to be. Maybe one day they’ll get their due—I think it would help if they could produce an album as solid and as consistently compelling as their best songs. But perhaps asking the group to abandon the whimsy that defines so much of their music is simply too much. Perhaps, without the silly stuff that grates on our nerves, the truly profound moments couldn’t exist at all?