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The A.V. Club compresses They Might Be Giants’ 30-year career into 60 minutes

Power Hour distills musicians’ discographies down to one tight 60-minute set, picking the big hits and deeper cuts from across a career, looking both to define who the artists are and to serve as a killer compilation.

A lyric to a quintessential They Might Be Giants song goes: “You’re older than you’ve ever been, and now you’re even older.” This is true of They Might Be Giants, inasmuch as the band is made up of people and it’s true of every person. But the sentiment doesn’t always seem true for TMBG, because of their young-skewing identities as, variously, a high school nerd’s delight, perpetual college-rock heroes, and, in more recent years, part-time entertainers of children.

The band began as a duo in the early ’80s, when former Massachusetts schoolmates John Flansburgh and John Linnell reconnected as transplants to Brooklyn. They wrote songs together and performed around New York, using unusual instrumentation (accordion, saxophone, and drum machines in addition to Flansburgh’s more traditional electric guitar) and gaining a following. When a biking accident and a burglary left the Johns unable to perform live for a period, they set up their now-semi-famous Dial-A-Song service, a dedicated answering machine in the 718 area code that would play a song over the phone line to interested callers (free from Brooklyn or, as the band used to note, “when calling from work”). Dial-A-Song was recently revived as an internet project, with the band releasing one song per week (including their recent A.V. Undercover take on “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child) throughout 2015.

But regardless of whether Dial-A-Song is officially running, that inventive, playful, song-heavy aesthetic always dominates their output, be it their ’80s albums for the Bar None label (1986’s self-titled “pink album” and 1988’s Lincoln), their major-label deal with Elektra that lasted through most of the ’90s (producing their platinum-selling Flood, as well as Apollo 18, John Henry, and Factory Showroom), their various digital projects (including Long Tall Weekend, a collection of previously unreleased outtakes that became the first original download-only album), or their post-internet alternating of children’s records with more traditional “adult” rock projects. Even before they set out to add 52 new songs to their catalog in 2015, They Might Be Giants were operating with one of the biggest song pools this side of Guided By Voices—which makes distilling their career into an hour a daunting task. Luckily, many of their songs also come in well under the three-minute mark, just one hallmark of the They Might Be Giants sound that can also include upbeat melodies, strange voices, and, perhaps most crucially, lyrics laced with sadness or mordant wit. That cleverness is sometimes mistaken for jokiness or insincerity, but while John and John have a clear sense of humor (and their live-show stage banter is top-notch), this is not a joke band.

And despite a clear They Might Be Giants sensibility, their songs have a lot of range. The early drum-machine material tends to feel a bit more experimental, but after touring with a full backing band behind 1992’s Apollo 18, TMBG added more live instrumentation to their recording process, starting with 1994’s John Henry. The full band shifted through the years—at one point, it consisted entirely of guys named either John or Dan—but the current lineup of Linnell, Flansburgh, guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller has now been in place for over a decade (Miller and Weinkauf arrived in the late ’90s, having played in bands that previously opened for TMBG). The tracks assembled for this Power Hour cover just about every era and incarnation of They Might Be Giants, a testament to their seemingly inexhaustible creativity and even more impressive consistency over their 30-plus years in indie rock.

1. “Spiraling Shape” (1996)

Recommending They Might Be Giants songs and albums to non-fans is always a tricky proposition: Is it better to go with something weird, so they know what they’re getting into, or something accessible, to lull them into acceptance? TMBG has plenty of options on both counts—and plenty that mix the two, perhaps never so prevalent as on their 1996 album Factory Showroom. Though it was their second album recorded with a full band and clocks in the most like a traditional alt-rock album (13 tracks, some well over three minutes long!), it strikes a friendly balance between catchiness and oddball experiments, sometimes on the same song. “Spiraling Shape,” for example, marries twinkly, inviting melody to a sense of fatalistic menace appropriate to its initial appearance on the soundtrack to the 1996 Kids In The Hall satire Brain Candy. It’s very much a prototypical TMBG song—except for its running time, which makes it one of the longest tunes they’ve ever recorded.

2. “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head” (1986)

Not every TMBG song is wordy, but the second track from their first album unleashes a torrent of lyrics that whoosh by so quickly that they can be difficult to parse on a first or even 20th listen without lyric-sheet assistance. The song was the subject of the band’s first music video, filmed in now-trendy North Brooklyn on leftover film scraps from Jonathan Demme’s Married To The Mob.

3. “Erase” (2015)

The band’s newest album is Glean, compiled from the first burst of Dial-A-Songs banked for 2015and surprisingly cohesive, given its status as, essentially, the first leg of a marathon. “Erase,” its leadoff track (and the very first track to emerge from the new Dial-A-Song crop) is a standout in the realm of TMBG power-pop. Linnell’s vocal melody modulates the song’s staccato pace, drawing out the chorus and proving the band can still knock out a catchy song almost 30 years after their debut.

4. “We Live In A Dump” (2007)

A wealth of great TMBG songs have turned up as B-sides, bonus tracks, or other compilation fodder; “We Live In A Dump,” which first appeared on the band’s podcast and was remade for a bonus disc accompanying their album The Else (later reappearing on the late-period sorta-best-of Idlewild), is one of their finest to never appear on a proper album. Written by Flansburgh with his pal Chris Anderson, its chipper complaints evoke both bohemia in general and degraded New York living in particular.

5. “Birdhouse In Your Soul” (1990)

Odds are, the majority of people who hear They Might Be Giants begin with one of three songs from 1990’s Flood—“Particle Man” and the cover “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” both of which were immortalized by animated videos on Tiny Toon Adventures—or the alt-rock hit “Birdhouse In Your Soul.” “Birdhouse,” a pledge of allegiance from a faithful nightlight to its owner, is the best of the bunch—and in this case “the bunch” could mean the popular songs from Flood, all of the songs from Flood, all of the songs by They Might Be Giants, or all of recorded music. On the record, it begins with a rare fade-in; in concert, its introductory cymbal tap has become instantly recognizable to long-time fans.

6. “Destination Moon” (1994)

They Might Be Giants specialize in unreliable narrators; “Unreliable Narrator” has even been listed as an alternate title for a number of projects. “Destination Moon” features an especially relatable one, as Linnell sings in the voice of someone who has been hospitalized while insisting that absolutely nothing is wrong, explaining in great vehicular detail how he intends to travel from the hospital bed to the moon. This deep cut from their underrated 1994 album John Henry backs up Linnell’s confidently addled vocals with a muscular full-band arrangement, including a brief surf-guitar breakdown belying the long-standing TMBG ban on guitar solos—the kind of ideological stance that fans tend to take more seriously than the artists who adopt and inevitably discard it. Still, some longtime fans found it difficult to adjust to the live-band aesthetic of John Henry, and even TMBG seems to shy away from this album in their live shows, though “Destination Moon” popped up in setlists frequently around the album’s tenth anniversary.

7. “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)(1992)

Several covers populate the They Might Be Giants repertoire, and one of the strangest and strongest is this lyrically minimal but musically punchy repurposing of the Solomon Linda song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to fit the general sci-fi vibe of Apollo 18. Around the time of the song’s release, TMBG was gearing up for its full-band shift, which may be why “The Guitar” becomes something else in a live song: A modular jam song that can showcase any single member of the band, or several at once. But the studio version has its charms, too, especially the additional vocals from indie-country singer/songwriter Laura Cantrell.

8. “She’s An Angel” (1986)

Like The Beatles, the primary author of a They Might Be Giants song can usually (though not always) be identified by which band member is singing. On the earliest TMBG albums, Flansburgh jumps through a lot of stylistic and experimental hoops, while Linnell’s talent for idiosyncratic pop songs seems to emerge almost fully formed. “She’s An Angel” is a case in point, a perfect love song about not knowing what to do when you think you’ve found a perfect person.

9. “Memo To Human Resources” (2004)

Though it currently seems to occupy a neither-here-nor-there space between the band’s ’80s and ’90s favorites and their current material, the 2004 album The Spine has several gems, especially from Flansburgh, who vividly evokes the sighing despair of office life in this heartbreaking ballad.

10. “Tick” (2013)

The band’s most famous experiments in the realm of ultra-short songwriting is the suite of “Fingertips” that appear on Apollo 18, initially designed to take advantage of the then-novel “shuffle” feature on CD players. Years of playing the songs together live, though, have rendered them perhaps more of an all-or-nothing proposition than originally intended. TMBG provided more mini-songs on 2013’s Nanobots, this time sequenced among longer songs (though more of them turn up in the back half of the album). “Tick,” for example, evokes an old-timey barroom singalong in a scant eleven seconds, and like the best “Fingertips,” it feels oddly complete on its own.

11. “Ana Ng” (1988)

One of the best TMBG songs also contains one of their musical signatures: a skittering guitar tone that sounds like a vibration running underneath parts of the chorus, dropping out for emphasis. It (or something like it) turns up on future tracks including “Bangs” from Mink Car and “Canajoharie” from Join Ususually a sign that the song in question has some degree of single potential, at least within the offbeat structure of their albums.

12. “Road Movie To Berlin” (1990)

The quality of They Might Be Giants’ work has held relatively steady throughout their career. One thing that sets their earlier work apart, though, is a fantastic sense of how to end a record. Flood may have, by this point, sold enough albums (over a million, improbably enough) for it to sit unlistened-to, save for a few recognizable songs, in many owners’ collections. But those who do play it until the end are rewarded with an elegiac piece of exit music that hangs in the air even as it prepares the listener for the end.

13. “Kendra McCormick” (2006)

The 2015 Dial-A-Song project is just one of several ambitious songwriting challenges TMBG have accepted over the years; on one tour, they wrote a song for every venue they played the day of the gig in question, then played it at that evening’s show. “Kendra McCormick” feels even more off-the-cuff; it was written for a radio contest where winners would receive a personalized song from the band. Though ostensibly intended for the recipient’s answering machine or outgoing voicemail, “Kendra McCormick” is hilariously unhelpful in that regard. It’s also suffused with wistfulness as it informs listeners that Kendra “no longer lives in this dorm” and is “all out on her own.”

14. “They’ll Need A Crane” (1988)

Though better known for writing about songs about science, neuroses, and death, They Might Be Giants are unheralded masters of the break-up song; an entire mix could be dedicated to their facility with this art form. “They’ll Need A Crane” sketches out the discontent between an unnamed “gal” and “lad” in a concise two and a half minutes, particularly the problems tumbling out in a 20-second bridge that doubles as a monologue: “Don’t call me at work again, no, no, the boss still hates me, I’m just tired, and I don’t love you anymore, and there’s a restaurant we should check out where the other nightmare people like to go, I mean nice people, baby wait; I didn’t mean to say nightmare.”

15. “Careful What You Pack” (2007)

“Careful What You Pack” was originally written for the Laika stop-motion film Coraline, along with some other unused and as-yet-unreleased songs (one tune, “Other Father Song,” did make it to the movie). “Pack” was repurposed for the 2007 album The Else, which was produced “collaboratively” by the band, their longtime producer Patrick Dillett, and The Dust Brothers. The Dust Brothers aren’t credited on this particular track (though they did work on “Feign Amnesia,” which sounds remarkably like a style parody of The New Pornographers) but its more subtle use of electronic music flourishes does suggest an outside influence that doesn’t often make its way onto TMBG’s records, even the more adventurous ones.

16. “Boat Of Car” (1986)

You have to take the flagrantly bizarre with the catchy, and even by They Might Be Giants’ standards, “Boat Of Car” is a weird one. Powered by a Johnny Cash sample and sung by someone not actually in the band, the song sounds stark and creepy before giving way to gentle guitar strums in its final 20 seconds. This sort of doodling, all over their debut as well as later projects like Join Us, is a vital part of the band’s identity and ethos. Even when the results seem intentionally alienating or annoying, they’re rarely boring.

17. “Spider” (1992)

Speaking of weird: This mixture of guttural noises and fake-voice dialogue fragments is less song-like than even some of the more marginal moments from TMBG’s early years. But it turns out to be a canny ingredient of a full album (and despite the eclecticism, most TMBG albums do feel somewhat coherent). On Apollo 18, it’s the perfect throat-clearing before “The Guitar”; in past live shows, it’s preceded any number of uptempo numbers.

18. “Dig My Grave” (1992)

Though They Might Be Giants concerts often include jokes, puppets, and sometimes confetti, they also toured extensively in the 90s, which means people have probably moshed to their music, presumably to John and John’s befuddlement (they made plenty of jokes at the time, calling crowd-surfing “pass the dude”). But a few of their songs are genuine rave-ups, like “Dig My Grave,” the leadoff track of Apollo 18, which sounds downright satanic next to some of their milder work—not all together inappropriate for a band that does traffic in skeleton imagery semi-regularly.

19. “Man, It’s So Loud In Here” (2001)

Though not quite the novelty/joke act they’re sometimes mistaken for, TMBG do have a knack for genre parodies. With the help of producer Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains Of Wayne), they reworked a straightforward power-pop song into a disco rave-up, complete with drum-machine beats more New Order-like than their own ’80s experiments. Even at its danciest, though, the song pulses with anxiety over how to deal with a loud club where “you have to carry all your things” because there’s not a good place to put them. Perfect, in other words, for a coffee-fueled band that sometimes seems to hold rock stardom at arm’s length.

20. “Nanobots” (2013)

This particular and, let’s face it, particularly nerdy band, with multiple songs imparting scientific and/or biographical facts, writing a song called “Nanobots” 30 years into their career might sound a little on the nose. But the title track from the 2013 album Nanobots (one of the band’s recent best) powers through any stereotypes with Linnell’s droll characterization of tiny robots that begin to multiply, and an inventive arrangement with Flansburgh’s roboticized vocals following Linnell’s in a semi-round. Like a lot of the band’s work, this could have been easy nerd pandering; instead, it turns out to be an immediate and off-kilter pop song.

21. “Judy Is Your Viet Nam” (2011)

Many They Might Be Giants fans seemed to consider 2011’s Join Us a major comeback for the band; it certainly represents one of their most notable album-to-album shifts, as their previous rock record The Else had more outside producers, fewer songs, and heavier instrumentation than a lot of their past work, while Join Us jumped headlong back into the experimental end of their output. These shifts happen periodically—1996’s Factory Showroom also had fewer and longer songs, followed by a long-ish album break and an eclectic grab bag in the form of 2001’s Mink Car—and seems to both refresh the band and help differentiate their songwriting modes. Even the most straight-ahead rocker on Join Us, “Judy Is Your Viet Nam,” would be difficult to picture on The Else; its 90-second distillation of garage rock is too short and spiky.

22. “Weep Day” (1985)

For an act with only a handful of real radio hits, They Might Be Giants has been subject of a surprising variety of compilations over the years: career overviews, greatest hits, odds and ends, live recordings, and repackaging of old material. The 1997 two-disc set Then: The Earlier Years, for example, collected the first two albums, the B-side collection Miscellaneous T, and a variety of previously unreleased Dial-A-Song material. The quality varies, of course, but “Weep Day” is a prime example of how Linnell and Flansburgh can spin an entire tune predicated on a play on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (creating the nonsensical characters “Tambo” and “Urine Man”). It’s also a prime example of how even some of their more fully formed songwriting experiments don’t make the album cut.

23. “The End Of The Tour” (1994)

As mentioned, 1994’s John Henry never really got its due. Released during the alt-rock boom but eclipsed by other nerd-friendly 1994 classmates like Weezer’s Blue Album and representing too much of a departure to become a consensus fan favorite, it has a small but passionate following within the already small-but-passionate They Might Be Giants following. As the alt-rock scene got too crowded for casual fans to notice, TMBG released some of their best songs ever, capped by “The End Of The Tour,” a poignant album-closer with affecting, allusive Linnell lyrics.

24. “Sleepwalkers” (2002)

Some hardcore fans love TMBG’s kid-oriented material as much as any of its adult stuff—or even prefer it, perhaps because some of the songs re-inject a sense of whimsical strangeness into the band’s output. But while some of the kid songs show their kid-friendly limitations (particularly when designed to impart lessons), “Sleepwalkers” (reworked from an old Dial-A-Song track) works beautifully for all audiences. This and a few other tracks from 2002’s No! could have easily slotted onto Apollo 18 or Mink Car, among others.

25. “Doctor Worm” (1998)

There isn’t a single album to highlight how many good songs both Johns were tinkering with between Factory Showroom in 1996 and Mink Car in 2001; some of them eventually turned up on Mink Car or The Spine, while others wound up on EPs or digital-only releases. “Doctor Worm,” for example, was the studio-made leadoff single for the 1998 mostly live album Severe Tire Damage, complete with one of their last non-animated music videos. It became a prominent song for the band despite a general lack of interest from alt-rock radio, which by ’98 was solidly in the thrall of Sugar Ray, Matchbox 20, and, briefly, the poor man’s They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies. As such, a horn-blasted ditty about a worm who thinks he’s a drum-playing doctor was consigned, like so many of their songs, to the true believers. Yet for They Might Be Giants fans, “Doctor Worm” plays like a hit singlea song that inspires riotous cheers in concert. The band’s entire career, in fact, plays like a secret, alternate history of pop music that’s a little smarter and more inventive than the real thing.

Total time: 59:32