After 1996’s Factory Showroom, alternative pop duo They Might Be Giants left Elektra Records. For a few years, no new studio material was coming down the pipeline. Fans had to settle on the Johns’ solo projects. John Flansburgh took his guitar and formed Mono Puff, releasing two albums. Meanwhile, John Linnell turned a 5-song EP entitled State Songs (originally sent to subscribers of the defunct “Hello CD of the Month” club) and expanded it to a full length album.
Only one single was released from that album: “Montana”. But it included a non-album song (“Louisiana”) and came on a nifty green vinyl record shaped like the contiguous 48 states. And let me tell you, as cool as it is, it’s a bitch to play this on a record player with auto-return tonearms. The lead-out groove is further inside than normal records.
The peppy folk-rock entry “Montana” tells a story of a older, possibly senile, person who comes to a sudden realization that “Montana was really just a leg, with the round part just the way you would expect”. Satisfied that his final thought being so profound (at least in his mind), he’s ready to “haul off and die”.
As you may have suspected by that somewhat confusing description, the “state” songs are not actually educational tunes, but rather they use the state names as an excuse to address more unconventional (and sometimes bizarre) topics. We’ll get into that more later.
The non-album B-Side on this fun-shaped piece of plastic is “Louisiana”, with the state playing the part of a naughty prankster, having thrown a blanket over the subject’s head (“Louisiana take this blanket off of me, I know you’re out there with your hands around my neck.”) It’s a jaunty song, but ultimately weaker than the album tracks. Good call leaving it off the album
Honestly, it’s really hard to describe the concept of these two songs outside the context of the entire album. So let’s ditch the single and talk about State Songs instead. I know it’s not on vinyl but when will I ever get a chance to cover it again?
State Songs, released in 1999, is classic “They Might Be Giants” absurdity – something fans of the band’s early days sorely missed (I know I did). Fifteen states are represented here, plus one song entitled “The Songs of the 50 States” that attempts to sum up the theme of the disc in the cheeriest way possible.
Although strictly a solo effort, Linnell did get help on some tracks from TMBG’s then-current “Band of Dans” (Dan Miller, Dan Weinkauf and Dan Hickey). But Linnell sings all the tracks here and plays the more unconventional instrumentation, such as the Wurkutzer 103 Band Organ and his ‘trademark’ accordion.
State Songs plays out like a geography lesson on acid. As I stated, the songs often have little, if anything, to do with the state after which they are named. “South Carolina” (the song that should have been the single) is about a bicycle accident. “Idaho” is about attempting to “drive” your house (supposedly based on a story about a bad LSD hallucination John Lennon once had). “West Virginia” is a ‘state’ within itself (you have to just hear that one for yourself, I can’t explain it). “Iowa” is a witch. “New Hampshire” is a man at a party no one likes. “Oregon” is ‘bad’ (stop it if you can). And so forth.
The music itself is strange and whimsical. Linnell goes to great lengths avoiding any repetition of style. One moment you’re listening to 60’s psychedelic rock while the next you’ll be hearing a demented Merry-Go-Round and then, after that, some good old fashioned power pop. Tack on some campy lyrics and themes, and you have a CD that does not get boring.
This may be controversial, but even though it’s only half the duo, this is probably the best album of all the “post full band TMBG” offerings. And that includes the album I’ll be covering tomorrow.
I just wish Linnell would release a follow-up. There are still 34 more songs to write.