They Might Be Giants seem to have a very good grasp on what their best material is, and have included a whole bunch of it right here in this self-curated collection.
Idlewild: A Compilation is a collection of They Might Be Giants songs ostensibly celebrating the past decade of the band’s output under their own Idlewild imprint. Technically, it goes back further than that, with the relative obscurities “Words Are Like” and “Certain People I Could Name” dating to 2001 and 1999, respectively. Anyone looking for a “greatest hits” singles collection (not that TMBG have had any quantifiable hits this century) or a rarities album will be mildly disappointed, although this record contains selections that fit into each of those categories. It’s not like They Might Be Giants have a large audience of casual fans, anyway. Their fanbase tends towards the obsessive. Since the band itself curated this compilation, it functions as a pretty thorough overview of what They Might Be Giants have been doing in the 21st century.
Idlewild begins with the trippy, fast-paced “Am I Awake”. This song is a pretty strange outlier in the oeuvre of John Linnell, who usually specializes in ultra-catchy power-pop character studies. “Am I Awake” is driven by jungle-style beats and several different swirling synth lines. It gives the song a dreamy, bordering on nightmarish, feel. This complements the lyrics, which focus on being in a state between sleep and consciousness and being unable to tell the difference. But since this is Linnell we’re talking about, the song still has a melodic core that renders the whole track very catchy. Next up is “The Mesopotamians”, one of the best Linnell songs of the past decade. “The Mesopotamians” is classic Linnell, a song that starts with an oddball concept (ancient heroes of Mesopotamia also play in a rock band) and makes it a song that you can’t help but sing along with. This is followed by “We Live in a Dump”, possibly the catchiest song John Flansburgh, the other half of the core TMBG duo, has ever written. Originally included on a B-side compilation accompanying ‘07’s The Else, “We Live in a Dump” is 100 seconds of grin-inducing pop, complete with wordless backing harmonies, crunchy guitars, and goofy lyrics.
The record also includes the opening tracks of each of TMBG’s four major albums over the past decade, which illustrates how highly Flansburgh and Linnell regard their leadoff songs. “Experimental Film” features a clueless filmmaker bragging about how amazing his experimental film is going to be while revealing he really has no idea what he is going to make. “I’m Impressed” is a backbeat-heavy song that finds Linnell singing about charismatic personalities and catastrophic destruction, but the lyric “I confess / I admit / I’m impressed” seems to indicate that he isn’t completely buying into the situation. “You’re on Fire” is dance floor ready, with its disco-style guitars shifting between the left and right speakers. But the lyrics, about a person whose head catches on fire, Ghost Rider-style, when they get angry, pretty much insured that no self-respecting club would ever play the track. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, which kicked off ‘11’s great Join Us, may be one of Linnell’s strongest character studies. Driven by a floating, airy lead guitar line from Dan Miller and an intense drum performance from Marty Beller, Linnell inhabits the character of “Johnny”, a deluded man who thinks everyone in town is attempting to insult him. From wanting to give the finger to a helpful motorist who tells him he left his gas cap off to spending days alone cataloguing perceived slights, Johnny is one messed up dude. But in typical They Might Be Giants fashion, this is all couched in the form of a catchy rock song that’s an instant sing along.
More interesting than all of these opening tracks, though, are the other cuts the band chose to include on the album. “Cloisonné” is a song built entirely around a series of very simple electronic drum loops and filled out with a pile of saxophones, which dominate the back half of the song once Flansburgh’s lyrics are finished. Similarly horn-based is “The Lady and the Tiger”, Linnell’s reimagining of the classic Frank Stockton short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” as a conversation from the point of view of the titular lady and tiger. The drums here are simple as well, but the horn arrangement is elaborate and the groove is very, very deep. “Funky” is not a term usually associated with They Might Be Giants, but this particular song is unique in their 30-year catalog and one of their most successful experiments in this century.
“Careful What You Pack” is a very pretty Flansburgh song, originally written for the movie Coraline but cut from the film, that’s refreshingly free of snark or artifice. Flansburgh has displayed a knack for this sort of emotional song occasionally in the past, but he doesn’t try it very often. This seems to make it all the more successful when he does. “Tesla” is a similarly pretty song from Flansburgh, which revisits the band’s tradition of highlighting historical figures. In this case, it’s essentially a list of some of Nikola Tesla’s greatest achievements mixed with a brief recounting of how he died. On the other end of the spectrum is the very busy “Damn Good Times”, a hard-rocking song that starts slow and gradually speeds up throughout (then drops back down in tempo and does it all over again in an extended coda). “Damn Good Times” doesn’t really sound quite like anything else in TMBG’s catalog, either, and it may be because this is one of very, very few tracks where drummer Marty Beller and guitarist Dan Miller received co-writing credits. The record finishes out with “Electronic Instanbul”, a very successful re-recording of the band’s cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” with all electronic instruments. They Might Be Giants are savvy enough to retain the basic vocals and melodies of the song, so their electronic ornamentations don’t radically alter the feel of the track despite drastically altering its sound.
While it would be easy to nitpick which songs were included on this compilation, it’s hard to argue when the band themselves are the ones putting the comp together. The band has managed to pick out a selection of their very best traditional songs as well as some of their best off-kilter tracks for Idlewild, and the result is an impressively well-rounded collection. Sure, I’d personally drop the middling mid-tempo horn feature “Brain Problem Situation” and replace it with the brilliant mid-tempo horn feature “Museum of Idiots”, and I’d have to think long and hard about dropping the great drum loop-based “Cloisonné” in favor of the excellent drum loop-based “Black Ops.” Other than that, though, They Might Be Giants seem to have a very good grasp on what their top-notch material is, and have included a whole bunch of it right here.