Monday, September 13, 2010

"Then: The Early Years" The Greatest Hits Of An Unheard Of Band!

The Good: Two very filled c.d.s with lots of original music!
The Bad: Often far too quirky
The Basics: Buy if you're sick of the radio sounds! This is something completely different!

They Might Be Giants is a band that has pretty much endured as an artist's dream. For almost two decades, the band has been putting out music outside the mainstream and they've survived because of two things: 1. Fans who appreciate how weird they are and 2. They're good. Anyone can be quirky and they'll fall off the face of the planet. Like Talking Heads' impressive run as a quirky band, captured perfectly on their double album Sand In The Vaseline, Then showcases a group that is working musically and lyrically well outside the mainstream.

They Might Be Giants endures because they're something different in a country where everything on the radio blurs together as one disappointing ball of crap. They Might Be Giants is the disinfectant that can remind you that music can be different and good. The songs on Then are a wide variety of They Might Be Giants songs exploring their years from before the group received mainstream notability with their album Flood. Here, the songs are (mostly) short, musically limited or utterly experimental, as the group tries to figure itself out.

Then showcases the band's early works, the most impressive of the band's original work. Over time, it's natural that the band will mellow a bit, but here we receive a rather pure experience. Spread over two very full discs, Then includes the entire albums They Might Be Giants, Lincoln, They'll Need A Crane, and Miscellaneous T along with songs from early EPs and 19 bonus tracks! With a total of 72 songs on the two discs, this is certainly one of the most ambitious anthology projects I've ever listened to. Moreover, the booklet that describes the endeavor is quite thorough with stories about the songs, lyrics and notes on the music and the career that Then spans.

The strength of the songs on Then are the lyrics. When they're funny ("Purple Toupee"), they're funny, when they're ironic ("Youth Culture Killed My Dog") they're ironic and when they're delving into human emotion ("I've Got a Match") they're relevant. So, for example, "Alienation's For The Rich" wonderfully charts the life of an artist with humor and absurd poignancy with lines like, "I got to get a job / Got to get some pay / My son's gotta' go to art school / He's leaving in three days / And the TV's in Esperanto / You know that that's a bitch / But alienation's for the rich / And I'm feeling poorer every day." These lines are accompanied by very simply instrumentals, with bandmembers John Flansbergh and John Linnell playing keyboards and guitars but engineering a lot of their sound using samples, drum machines and synthesized music. It works wonderfully for their group, though and the sound is fresh and different from the mainstream, defining perfectly an alternative to standard pop-rock.

The problematic aspects of Then is that sometimes they go too far. "Chess Piece Face" is a good example of a song that's not just different, it's too different, it makes the listener ask, "What's the point of this?" What does it mean when the group sings "What's gonna happen to Chess Piece Face / There go I but for my face / All I know could be defaced by the facts in the life of Chess Piece Face. . ." ("Chess Piece Face")? It's somewhat gibberish, somewhat absurd and while it's addressed on a wonderful recording of a call in from a person who just doesn't get it (the track is untitled, disc one, track 23.), it's not enough to justify itself. It's absurdity for its own point. While the bulk of the songs are meaningful or fun, there are a few tracks that are just too strange.

Tracks like "The World's Address" competently mediates the two. The song is a pop-rock track that sings simply about the location of the planet, setting itself apart from any other song . . . well, in history. The song is clever and intriguing and it sounds wonderful, despite the simplistic construction of the lines and song. Then is a wonderful album for the artistic underdog - it is proof that originality can survive in today's market if only one is willing to look for good music and can find it. You'll find it here.

Then is a double c.d. with plenty of bang for its buck (though I find myself listening to the second c.d. more). The best tracks are "When It Rains It Snows" and "I've Got A Match" and the weak links are the untitled "interview" track on the first c.d. and "Weep Day" on the second c.d.!


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© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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