Friday, January 28, 2011

Truly Outstanding Albums: John Henry, by They Might Be Giants

In 1965, Bob Dylan introduced electric guitars to the Newport Folk Festival for the first time, and the face of music was irrevocably altered. Never before had anyone thought of using electric guitars in folk music (provided you ignore the Byrds as well as Dylan's own "Bringing it All Back Home" album released earlier that year). And never before had an artist received such unjustified hate for introducing new instruments. And it would never happen again . . . until 1994, when They Might Be Giants released "John Henry".

In the years since the Newport controversy, things have settled a little. Pete Seeger claims he only called for the amps to be shut off, because they were set up poorly and that the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding. But the hatred reserved for "John Henry" continues to this day. Pitchfork Media even declared "John Henry" to be "one of the least interesting albums ever released".

While Dylan was crucified for using electric guitars instead of acoustic guitars, They Might Be Giants were crucified for using drums instead of a drum machine.

As such, it's fitting that the album was called "John Henry". For those unfamiliar, "John Henry" is an old blues song about a guy named "John Henry", who like hitting things. One day he's confronted with a machine that hits things, so John Henry challenges the machine to a competition to see who's better at hitting things. Everybody thinks the machine will win, but John Henry gives it everything he's got and ultimately achieves victory. But this victory comes with a cost. Depending on which version of the song you're listening to, that cost is either that he dies, or that Pitchfork Media calls him "one of the least interesting people in existence".

Like Dylan going electric, this move towards using a whole band rather, than just two guys, an accordion, a guitar and random electronic stuff, came wholly unexpected. Never before had a nerd rock group ever incorporated a full band, provided you ignore Moxy Früvous, the Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants' own "Back to Skull" EP, released earlier that year.

And just as Dylan signaled his decision to go electric with the confrontational "Maggie's Farm" a song that mocked different facets facets of the folk scene, They Might Be Giants signaled their decision to include drums with "Snail Shell" a song about a snail that somehow got out of its shell and is thanking somebody for putting it back.

That song was released originally on the "Back to Skull" EP, but also included as the second track on "John Henry". While the lyrics are what you'd expect of a band like They Might Be Giants, the music is a lot more grungy, and it includes (gasp) a drum solo. So it's understandable that it would provoke such wrath that even the adorable kids on the inside cover are holding a sign saying "We Hate They Might Be Giants".

The "least interesting album" charge leveled by the likes of Pitchfork Media stems from the assumption that the use of a live band makes every song sound completely grungy. And for a lot of the actual grunge albums of that time, the charge would hold.

There's this annoying tendency in music criticism, especially Pitchfork Media, to assume that any time a band changes it's style, that that immediate change will be permanent and every song will sound like that. So when The Decemberists released their rock opera "The Hazards of Love" all the critics acted like they were no longer interested in writing isolated songs, despite the fact that they did exactly that on their follow up album, "The King is Dead". And when they did that, the critics rejoiced that the band had finally seen the error of their ways and had permanently returned to form, despite the fact that it's really a turn to country.

The idea that They Might Be Giant's had become nothing but a grunge band just because of "Snail Shell" is even sillier when one actually listens to the rest of the album. Like this song:

And album that has "O Do Not Forsake Me" and "Snail Shell" can't be the "least interesting" of anything.

It's also worth noting that, while "Snail Shell" was intended as a showcase for the capabilities of the full band, the album opens with a different song, "Subliminal". This song begins with just the accordion, then the drums come in, then the guitars, and then the vocals. So rather than doing away with the trademark They Might Be Giants two-guys-and-an-accordion sound, they were expanding it.

As such, "Subliminal" serves a role similar to "Lovely Joan" on Miranda Sex Garden's "Iris" EP, released the same year, which marked that bands transition from madrigal choir to industrial-goth-metal band.

You may notice that the lyrics to this song reference a car crash. This is true of three other songs on the album: "Sleeping in the Flowers", "AKA Driver" and "The End of the Tour". This thematic unity may cause some to accuse the album of being a bit one-note, but I will have you know that The Magnetic Fields once released an album consisting of sixty-nine songs, all of which were about love.

And it's not like all of the songs are abut car crashes. There's also a song about a spaceship crash. And a song about an exploding thermostat. And some of the songs are about unrelated things entirely, like "Unrelated Thing".

The song that best shows the new range afforded by the live band is a little ditty entitled "A Self Called Nowhere". This song is a loose adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano. Despite the following fan-made video, it is not about Mario.

Now this is not the most They Might Be Giants-esque songs on the album, although it does include the very They Might Be Giants-esque line "Standing in my yard, where they tore down the garage, to make room for the torn down garage." (Once again, the fact that the album includes a song with that line automatically disqualifies it from being the "least interesting" of anything). But even if it's not typical of They Might Be Giants, it's not typical of anything.

It has a lot of psychedelic stuff, with the trippily surreal chorus and the tape distortions near the end. So it's not grunge. But if it is psychedelia, it's a lot darker than the usual '60s flower-power stuff, with it's images of urban decay and Boston accents. And it's an adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. And it has an acoustic guitar and a horn section.

The brass section is another aspect of "John Henry" that is overlooked. More than the drum machines, what defined early They Might Be Giants musically was their willingness to use random wind instruments, like accordion and clarinet. Although they didn't use a horn section much prior to "John Henry", it plays a big role in preserving the They Might Be Giants sound.

As such the definitive song on "John Henry" is "No One Knows My Plan". It makes full use of both the full band and the horn section. And it features the They Might Be Giants staple of having kind of morbid lyrics accompanied by light-hearted music. It has the staccato instrumental arrangements associated with the band from when they would release songs on Dial-a-Song and didn't want the music to be confused with the answering machine's beep.

Also it has an amusingly literal interpretation of "the allegory of the people in the cave by the Greek guy".

There are songs on the album that are more out there and some that are less. "Thermostat" is in 5/2 time and features some interesting hocketing in the horn section which suggests that They Might Be Giants should totally release an album of Anton Webern covers. Songs like "AKA driver", "Extra Savoir-Faire", "Spy" and "Dirt Bike" are low on the wackiness factor, but have some tight arrangements. "I Should Be Allowed to Think", "Why Must I Be Sad?" and "Stomp Box" exemplify the "grunge" charge to varying degrees but all serve as parodies of '90s rock. "Out of Jail" is a nice cute love song and the 1-minute-long bagatelle "Window" is a worthy successor to the likes of "Minimum Wage" from "Flood".

The two songs most representative of They Might Be Giants are "Meet James Ensor" and "The End of the Tour", which are also the most commonly performed songs from the album in concert. That being said, neither of those songs have ay official or fan-made music video's on YouTube for me to embed, so here is a live version of "Meet James Ensor", and a fan-made cover of "The End of the Tour".

"The End of the Tour" is one of the four "car crash" songs, and the most heartfelt, but it also brings in synthesizers which may remind people of They Might Be Giants of yore. This brings us back to the Bob Dylan analogy. Legend has it, that when Dylan brought electric guitars to the Newport Folk Festival, that Pete Seeger hid in his car and played "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" on an acoustic guitar to lament something or other. This is probably a load of hogwash, but it makes for an entertaining legend.

Given They Might Be Giants' reputation for quirkiness, they didn't have a song like that that an enraged Pitchfork Media writer would sing in their locked car while playing their drum machine. As such, it's nice that They Might Be Giants used their change in sound to provide them with a song to play. And it makes a great song for finishing their concerts. And it's just a great song in general.

As for "Meet James Ensor", this is every bit classic old-school They Might Be Giants. It uses a drummer, but he doesn't embellish much, and does play fast enough on the verses it sounds like a human couldn't do it. It's incredibly quirky, detailing the life of "Belgium's famous painter" with lines like "Before there were junk stores, before there was junk, he lived with his mother and the torments of Christ", and it advocates that the listener "dig him up and shake his hand".

This serves to illustrate what makes this an atypical They Might Be Giants album. They Might Be Giants typically seem very happy on the surface, while the lyrics reveal something darker within. "John Henry", wear's its darkness on the outside, with the songs about car crashes, the minor keys and grungy guitar playing. And, of course, the creepy kids in the album artwork. "Meet James Ensor", stays pretty light hearted throughout, which makes it seem somewhat out of place. But if you look at the inside album art, you'll notice the creepy kids are playing with skulls, something inherited from the "Back to Skull" cover. and if you look at the works of James Ensor, you find this:

As I mentioned, "John Henry" is not a typical They Might Be Giants album. If you're just getting into the band for the first time, I would recommend "Apollo 18" as a great album that's a bit more representative of the band as a whole. But "John Henry" is still one of the best.


  1. I saw TMBG live with the full band in 1995, and it still stands today as the best show I've ever been to.

  2. I've been to see tmbg live several times, own all of the albums and consider myself a fan. I think John Henry is probably their best, though least representative, album. Great review!

  3. My friend Mike played "Apollo 18" for me and at first I thought it was just weird, but then it kinda grew on me. Pretty soon I bought my own "Apollo 18" CD and I was a fan. Funny thing though. I still have to listen to their albums a second time before I like them.