The Good: Some of the music is weird, interesting and still accessible to adults
The Bad: So many of the lyrics are simplified for kids, SHORT!
The Basics: In a disappointing musical outing, They Might Be Giants sacrifices their originality and sophistication to make a mediocre children's album.
I do not claim to be an expert on the group They Might Be Giants. I enjoyed Flood for many years and in college, when I picked up Then (reviewed here!), it too became one of the albums in highest rotation in my collection. I had heard that They Might Be Giants had veered off their usual quirky, eccentric, musical experimentations and ventured into the realm of children's music. Now, I do not have children, so when I picked up No! I listened to it and was rating it based on my appreciation of music in general and of They Might Be Giants in specific.
With seventeen tracks clocking in at just under 34 minutes, No! is a musical and stylistic disappointment that suffers the more it is listened to. First off, all of the tracks are ridiculously short, which They Might Be Giants has illustrated it is not limited to. On Flood, for example, tracks are longer than on many of the songs on Then, illustrating that the group was steadily growing, making more complex and clever songs, as opposed to musical jokes or ditties that expired rapidly. On No! they seem determined to limit themselves and that comes across as a serious limitation, as if they are regressing. So, children's album or not, it seems like the group is talented enough that they ought to have been able to make songs that were engaging and longer than an average of two minutes!
Strangely, for songs that are so short, many of them are also so lyrically limited that in order to get up to 2 minutes, many of the songs simply repeat lyrics. The height of this is track eleven, "Clap Your Hands." The only lines in this song are "Clap your hands" and "Stomp your feet" and "Jump in the air" repeated over and over again with little actual music backing the song up. Instead, it's just a chant. And it's not even smart or inspired.
They Might Be Giants have a reputation for being clever, but on No! they mortgage that for an esoteric idea that does not pan out. There is a very brief song which is the story of a broom rebelling against a human and is fleshed out by simply whistling broom noises. The song is not long enough for the story it is telling, so the listener is treated to filler. That's a shame. Similarly, the surprisingly witless "Grocery Bag" is simply a list of things that are stuck in a grocery bag. Wow. That song is so short it makes the listener wonder what the point was.
And the thing is, as someone who grew up on Marlo Thomas's "Free To Be You And Me" and Slim Goodbody, I'm not sure what the educational value of the songs on No! are. The title track No! teaches a good lesson, with its admonition that "No is no / No is always no / If they say no it means a thousand times no . . ." But outside that, the directions for crossing the street on "In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle," and the list of what comes from different countries in "Where Do They Make Balloons?", there is nothing here that screams educational and it's hard to see how it would be terribly entertaining for young people as well.
There is a schizophrenic quality to No! which comes across as an adult listening to the album repeatedly; for a children's album, there are songs that seem awfully like standards for They Might Be Giants, i.e. not necessarily for children. In fact, "Robot Parade" is derivative of an earlier They Might Be Giants song, "Become A Robot," which essentially says the same thing (but longer and with more instrumentals). But some of the more sophisticated and weird songs seem like they could have come from earlier in the group's career when they were simply making quirky and esoteric music.
For example, "The Edison Museum" is a song about Thomas Alva Edison's closed museum, referring to it as "The Edison Museum, once a bustling factory / Today is but a darkened, cobweb-covered hive of industry, The tallest, widest and most famous haunted mansion in New Jersey . . ." It's sung in creepy tones with lots of bass and it's a wonderfully weird song. Similarly, the chain of events in "The House At The Top Of The Tree" seem too complicated for kids (at least ones that are still trying to tell time as "Four of Two" seems to connote the album is for). And the weird superhero "John Lee Supertaster" is just weird, reminding the listener of such songs as "For Science."
In short, it seems like They Might Be Giants wants the best of both worlds, to create a children's album but not to mortgage their prior, loyal fans. As a result, they fail to create an album that is satisfying for either. Children might like the sound, but they are likely to learn very little, nor be consistently entertained. Adults are likely to be turned off by some of the educational or overly-simple songs and to shelf the album after a few albums as the songs are rather repetitive. While it might be more of an average album, it is certainly a failure and one that is impossible to recommend.
The best song is the creepy "The Edison Museum" which is part of a three-song stretch of songs that sound like They Might Be Giants' earlier works and the worst track is the simple, utterly pointless "Clap Your Hands" which seems designed to energize kids, but will just annoy adults.
For other albums geared toward children, please visit my reviews of:
Folk Songs For Young People - Pete Seeger
Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits
Around The Campfire - Peter, Paul, And Mary
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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