[28 June 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It was in June of 2002 that Brooklyn dweeb-rock duo-turned-quintet They Might Be Giants unleashed No!, their “first album for the entire family.” This would normally elicit a gigantic groan from the dedicated fanbase for almost any other band of such stature, but TMBG fans knew all along that this day was coming. Some who had children of their own were probably anticipating it. The band’s kid appeal had been shining through all along. Just witness the children’s chorus recording of “Particle Man” on the Then: The Early Years compilation, the educational nugget of American history “James K. Polk” and a note-for-note reprise of of the old school days sciencey tune “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)”. All it needed was a wider context.
No! was a step in that direction. Subsequent children’s albums from They Might Be Giants were more thematic; Here Come the ABC’s was about the alphabet, Here Come the 123’s was about numbers and Here Comes Science...you get the idea. In retrospect, No! is scattered in style and theme, but that didn’t keep it down. No! got some pretty good critical love according to Metacritic scores and many a TMBG fan will admit that it’s a work they genuinely love. Even the childless bought it (my source for this information - the 2002 me). They Might Be Giants’ label Idlewild is commemorating the 10th anniversary of No! with a deluxe edition. It doesn’t seem terribly necessary since the original No! is still on the market, the bonus tracks may of be limited interest to kids and, if any remastering took place, I can’t notice it.
First, a word about No! as a piece of art; They Might Be Giants were able to indulge their weirder inclinations in a way that would have been less forgivable on one of their “adult” albums. John Flansburgh, John Linnell and the band of Dans (Miller on guitar, Weinkauf on bass, Hickey on drums) were able to throw caution to the wind for No! and it paid off. It has electro-pop tickled with funny sounds, unorthodox song-stories and musical quips that lasted for only a minute or so. They used whatever arrangments they felt like using, even if it meant no drums. The subjects of the songs were kept straightfoward; no metaphors or clever turns of phrases for the kids, they kept it simple. “I Am A Grocery Bag” was a grocery bag listing its contents. “Robot Parade” was about future generations building robots to march in a parade. “I Am Not Your Broom” is about a broom that wants to quit its job. “In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle” is about crossing the street as safely as possible. The title track is about a toddler’s favorite word to use but least favorite word to hear. There are a few more involved numbers for kids who wanted a little more from their music like the guy who missed his date to become Rip Van Winkel in “Four of Two” and the kid who concocts a muddled plan so as to not get eaten by mice in “The House at the Top of the Tree”. But overall, No! was lyrically basic and musically eclectic. That sounds generic, but there’s really no better way to describe it without overdoing it on the details.
The new No! (Deluxe Edition) has seven bonus tracks, four of which are live recordings of No! songs; “John Lee Supertaster”, “Violin”, “Clap Your Hands” and “Robot Parade”. Two other live recordings originally come from non-children albums, “Dr. Worm” and “Stalk of Wheat,” the latter of which has been used in the band’s family shows as part of the Blue Avatars puppet segment. The one studio bonus track is a version of “Alphabet of Nations” that actually works harder to name different countries in alphabetical order than the version on Here Come the ABC’s. At first, it’s identical to the original version. Then the two Johns trade nation names in a call-and-response with Flansburgh holding steady notes in his upper register while Linnell shouts his turns. Linnell comes up with additional countries different from the first verse before stopping at “Guatemala”, then the original sequence finishes up the song. The live recordings are not kid unfriendly, they just don’t seem to be targeted towards the same audience as the original No!. A wild guess tells me they’re geared towards the parents, the ones who frequented the band’s shows from the 2004-05 period (The Spine Hits the Road, I believe it was called) where the band allows their live sound to get bolstered and Flansburgh does more than his fair share of class-clown hollering. The way he asks the audience to bandy the “whooooah” in “Violin” around the venue just won’t resonate with anyone in their preteens or younger. The one live track that adds anything to the original is “Robot Parade”. The voice modulator used by John Flansburgh is unforgiving in the intonation department but the band makes up for it when they fill up the surrounding space with a full-on stack of bricks that situate it between the original No! version and the “adult version” found on the Working Undercover for the Man EP. It’s amped up, just not too heavy.
Grading these kinds of products can be tricky. On the one hand, No! is still a fun listen and, depending on who you ask, represents a creative high point for 21st century They Might Be Giants. On the other hand, this reissue doesn’t really add much. To be fair, it doesn’t take anything away either. I suppose the true test is to put it to the kids. My 22-month-old likes to echo the “hippo” and “dust, dust” while the live “Violin” is playing and my four-year-old still enjoys “Dr. Worm” and “John Lee Supertaster”, even though she’s slightly baffled by Flansburgh’s robust preacher-like intro to the live “Supertaster”. But No! was a good album to begin with and no deluxe package, be it good or bad, can change that.