Today we venture into the strange, tune-infused hinterlands of geekdom, to that wondrous realm known to its friends and detractors alike as "Geek Rockland."
(Or maybe it's a "-berg," or perhaps even a "-ville." Okay, so it's not even really a place. It's a state of mind, dude or dudette. In which case, select your own suffix and get down with your own bad self. We must move on, and end parens.)
What is geek rock? That depends entirely on who is answering the question. I'm not even sure if it's a legitimate genre to anyone but me. You certainly don't see any "Geek Rock" sections at your local record store between the Trance and the Country placards, and I'm pretty sure MTV's attempt to launch a "Geek Rock Spring Break" never actually happened except in my own fevered imagination.
To me, geek rock is music that appeals to a specific, unique sect of the record-buying public, and those folks are usually geeks. It's usually music that's not aiming for mainstream success; in some cases, it's doing everything it can to reject the mainstream. It may or may not be performed by actual geeks, but it does often deal with themes of alienation and heartbreak, along with a wide variety of obscure topics. If you find yourself writing tuneful pop about the girl who turned you down for the prom, or James K. Polk (or somehow both at the same time), you're probably a geek rocker.
I don't want to discuss the lengthy list of artists I'd include in my own personal roster of geek rockers, because no doubt some of them will turn up in future editions of this column, and I'd hate to spoil the surprise. Plus, today's column isn't about geek rock as a historical pop phenomenon; it's instead about two of the finest geek rockers in pop history, and one of their finest concoctions. I speak of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, known to us mortals as They Might Be Giants, and their 1988 release "Lincoln."
TMBG emerged for the world at large in 1990, with their major-label debut album "Flood." That record contained what may be the only Giants song you know, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," unless you watch "Malcom in the Middle," in which case you also know their theme song for the show, "Boss of Me." The Giants met while working on their high school paper in the mid-seventies and practiced their unique version of "new wave" (sorta) throughout the eighties, first in NYC at clubs and then on their first album, named after the band but commonly referred to by fans as "The Pink Album."
"Lincoln" was their second full-length LP, and in some ways, it's the quintessential Giants record; if there is a Platonic form for what the Giants do, it's "Lincoln." They've since expanded their sound to incorporate a real-life drummer and lots of other instrumental bells and whistles, but this is the pure, good, early stuff. It's all drum machine, accordion, and bitchin' guitar, supporting achingly perfect melodies and willfully obscure lyrics.
What's going to surprise you about "Lincoln" more than anything else will be just how damn catchy this record is. To the ears of 1988, and maybe even the ears of today, TMBG doesn't necessarily make music that you would characterize as "accessible." It is, however, insidiously memorable. One listen to songs like "Ana Ng" and "The World's Address" is all it will take to trap these melodies in your brain forever. (And I mean that in the best possible way, not in a scary brainwashed kind of way.)
At first, it'll be easy to hear these playful little melodies and pretend it's a fun, wacky record. To be fair, there are plenty of wacky moments, from the oddball "Cowtown" to the satirical "Snowball in Hell," a bitter working man's lament at the white-collar culture that has eaten our society alive.
But the real heart of "Lincoln," and what makes it so compelling, is its sadness and yearning. "Ana Ng" opens the record with a literal bang; there's never been a more rocking tune about the 1964 World's Fair. This isn't really a fun song, though. It's about a man broken up over missing a woman he loves, but who lives on the other side of the globe. He doesn't want the world; he just wants her half. It seems like so little to ask, and yet so much. Songs like "I've Got a Match" and "They'll Need a Crane" keep the heartbreak coming. No one captures the vocal feat of dull, throbbing pathos quite like Mr. John Linnell, and he shows off his gifts to perfection on these two tracks. They're perfect examples of how the Giants can take you to a place of pure, naked emotion via the most obtuse path imaginable.
Then there's the satire of sixties culture, in songs like "Cage and Aquarium" and "Purple Toupee." "Purple Toupee" sounds like nonsense if you're not really listening, even though it's the most wackily catchy tune on "Lincoln." The lyrics talk about Johnson's Wax, the King of Cuba, Martin X being angry about a law against bell bottoms, and freeing the Expo '67. Paying attention to those words, however, reveals the tune as a fun house mirror version of the sixties. It could be the wistful remembrance of someone too young to truly understand the decade as it was happening, or the acid-drenched recollections of someone too strung out to truly understand the decade as it was happening. Or maybe it's saying that all those years of protest and debate and righteous anger haven't really mattered at all, because all those hippies have traded in their politics and rebellion for the sellout comfort of their purple toupees.
That's just one man's opinion, and that's the great thing about They Might Be Giants. Everyone can have an opinion about what it all "means," and we're all probably right. Their songs are often funny, frequently emotional, and never boring. Most of all, they encourage you to think. You'll find a lot more to wonder about than you'd get from the work of most songwriters, where it's simply a matter of figuring out which Rock Skank said songwriter was shagging when he penned his single "Vaguely Tender Love Song That Will Be A Huge Radio Hit."
Through it all, there are the melodies. The unreal superfantastictremendous melodies. I defy you not to sing along to half the songs on this record after hearing them just one time. You won't know the words yet, but you'll be unable to keep yourself from trying anyway. The Giants are going to go down as two of the most criminally underappreciated songwriters in the history of pop music; their best tunes are easily on par with anything Lennon or McCartney cooked up. They're those perfect kinds of melodies, the ones that don't even seem written so much as they seem dropped from the sky in whole form.
Face it, true believers. This disc is good stuff. "Lincoln" is available on a CD by itself, and you'll probably find it for real cheap at your better used CD stores. But the motherlode of early TMBG is "Then: The Earlier Years," a fantastic two-disc compilation that collects the first two Giants records in their entirety, along with all the corresponding B-sides and some tracks you won't find anywhere else. There's also some great liner notes that will help you learn a lot more than I could ever teach you about the band's history. If you're intrigued enough by these words to buy some Giants, "Then" is most definitely the place to start.
Pick it up, crank it up, roll the windows down and cruise to the comic shop for the latest issue of "Superman" and a rare variant "Buffy" action figure. Or just drive through the neighborhoods of your local metropolis, exposing the world at large to one of geek rock's great shining moments. Enjoy every second. After all, everyone looks naked when you know the world's address.
(You'll get that after you hear "Lincoln." I swear!)