Kids dig They Might Be Giants. Something about John Flansburgh's and John Linnell's often-nasal, slightly flat voices is soothing to them. The producers of Tiny Toon Adventures
realized this over a decade ago when they used "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man" in their cartoons, transfixing elementary-school-aged kids everywhere, including this very reviewer. Though the Johns are always writing songs to and for folks of their own generation, many children think their unaffected-yet-eccentric music might be a transmission from the mothership.
And after twenty years together, They Might Be Giants have decided to make something just for that mostly-unacknowledged segment of their audience, exchanging their usual themes of unhappy lovers, existential angst and death with quarreling playmates, gentle surrealism and bedtime -- subjects infinitely more familiar to the under-ten set. But even with the occasional subject-matter switching, the music remains the same as for their adult recordings; in fact, this is probably some of the best music they've done in five years or more. Lead guitarist Dan Miller, a relatively new but invaluable addition to the band, carries "Fibber Island" with his gentle acoustic-guitar fingerpicking and "Lazyhead and Sleepybones" with appropriately relaxed lap steel. Fellow sideman, bassist Danny Weinkauf, even gets to sing one of his own songs here, the bright, poppy "Where Do They Make Balloons?", which is almost more Fountains of Wayne (for whom Weinkauf formerly played) than anything Schlesinger and Collingwood have ever written.
Though they make the most of the "Band of Dans", rounded out by drummer Dan Hickey, this is as always Flansburgh and Linnell's show. Linnell's ubiquitous accordion makes one of its few appearances on "Four of Two", a remarkably rocking and catchy tale of a clueless stood-up date under a stopped clock, and his keyboards add carousel-organ bombast to the delightfully recursive "The House at the Top of the Tree" and music-box plinking to closer "Sleepwalkers". He almost out-rocks the usually more populist Flansburgh, who sings some of the most subdued ("Fibber Island"), as well as the most out-there (the hilarious white-boy funk of "John Lee Supertaster") songs on No!
That uncompromised musical sensibility is what ultimately makes this record really successful and appealing to all members of the TMBG family: kids, parents and nerdy long-time fans alike can take something out of this. But most of all, this is for the kids, and They Might Be Giants respect them as much as any other listeners. The songs here can be silly and over-the-top, but they're never condescending, preachy or cutesy. The Johns know kids like to rock; they know that kids are both able to take pride in being smarter than the narrator of "Four of Two", and have fun repeating words that just taste good along with Linnell in "Violin". They know that the stuff stupid grownups will think goes over kids' heads, like the "listeners should not operate machinery or plush animals while listening to the last three songs" disclaimer on the back, is the kind of stuff they'll totally get. Kids are all too familiar with No! as the word they hear most often of all; They Might Be Giants, though, give them a big, noisy "Yes!"