When Quirky Grows Up
Getting Mature With TMBG and Eleanor Friedberger

I mentioned Dr. Tony Shore last week as a man of wealth and taste. (Well, not wealth. Well, he does all right.) Tony’s a big fan of pop music, specifically keyboard-driven pop music – this is a guy who names Yes’ 90125 as his favorite album of all time. As you might imagine, we’ve had our share of musical disagreements.

One of our ongoing back-and-forths is over the use of the word “quirky.” Dr. Shore loves this word, and uses it at every opportunity. The new Cars album is quirky, Fountains of Wayne are quirky, Bleu is quirky, and on and on. I needle him about it, because sometimes it seems to be the only adjective in his stable. But I have to admit, there are times when quirky is the only word that will do.

Take, for example, They Might Be Giants. This is a band for whom the word quirky could have been invented. The band is two guys named John, one who plays guitar and another who plays accordion. They write funny songs, often chock-full of nonsense lyrics, but they’re not a novelty band by any stretch of the imagination. Their music is full-blooded, melodic and catchy, even when their lyrical preoccupations include U.S. presidents, birdhouse-shaped nightlights and the eternal battle between XTC and Adam Ant. They’re not silly, they’re just…quirky.

They’re also, willingly or not, now music biz veterans. Both Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) are over 50. Together they’ve released 15 studio albums and a host of other projects, and next year is TMBG’s 30th anniversary. But here is what I love about them: they steadfastly refuse to grow up. Hell, they’ve spent a big chunk of the last 10 years making children’s music – absolutely astonishing, brainy children’s music, the kind I wish I had around when I was learning to read and write. You can write them off as big kids if you like, but to me, they’re still following that optimistic dream they had as 20-year-olds. And that’s beautiful.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t matured, of course. You can still see things as an adult even if you refuse to grow up. (He said, while making his first-ever mortgage payment.) All the evidence of that you need can be found on TMBG’s fantastic 15th album, Join Us. There are no outright laughs on this record, no “Minimum Wage” or “Older” or “Bastard Wants to Hit Me.” But there’s plenty to make you think, and even more to put a wry grin on your face. This is TMBG’s most mature album – you can hear it in the guitar-heavy, live-band production – but it’s still TMBG. And thank God for that.

Still, every time this band writes a straight love song, it’s still striking. They’ve been plying this trade since “They’ll Need a Crane,” with the best of the lot being “Another First Kiss,” from Mink Car. But the two entries on Join Us certainly deserve to join the pantheon.

“Let Your Hair Hang Down” is a first-rate, world-class pop song about the joys of throwing caution to the wind. This is a song that could have been a hit in 1975 – the Byrds-y guitars ring out winningly, and Linnell and Flansburgh harmonize a soaring, delightful melody. “Let the wrong be wrong, would it be so bad, when your hair’s so long, let your hair hang down…” It’s wonderful. And “Never Knew Love” mentions cartography and semaphore, but at its core, it’s a pretty song of wonder and devotion.

Throughout Join Us, Linnell and Flansburgh use that quirky perspective of theirs to illuminate down-to-earth concerns. “You Probably Get That a Lot” whips out the word “cephalophore,” a term for those statues of saints carrying their own heads. But when you get down to it, the song is about seeing something special in someone else. Both “Protagonist” and “Spoiler Alert” use the device of fiction to shine a light on their confused characters. And the head-spinning time travel tale “2082” is really about hoping that some day, one day, you’ll understand yourself.

The most strikingly straightforward tune here is the surprisingly joyous “When Will You Die.” It is the most vitriolic thing this band has ever released: “You’re insane, you are bad, you wreck everything you touch and you’re a sociopath, there’s just one thing that everyone’s wondering, when will you die?” Linnell goes on to explain that the schools and banks will close, and people will celebrate by “jumping up and down on your grave.” But it’s not mean, or vindictive. It’s danceable and fun, and it contains the greatest band shout-out ever. (Don’t want to ruin that for you.)

Yes, there are songs here that are just plain weird, like “The Lady and the Tiger” and the incomprehensible (to me, anyway) “Three Might Be Duende.” But the way TMBG chooses to go out here should tell you where their hearts are. The final song is called “You Don’t Like Me,” and it’s a simple pop number that flips the “I saw you across a crowded room” cliché on its ear. “I can see the future like it’s in the past, you will never be my friend, you don’t like me…”

It’s a song of loneliness and disappointment, filtered through the TMBG lens – the singer then goes on to list the things his subject does like, including Court TV, cats and Woody Harrelson. It’s wry and witty, funny and sad. It is, like the best TMBG songs, the perfect balance. Growing up is overrated. TMBG is growing old gracefully, and Join Us is a wonderful little record, everything you’d hope They Might Be Giants at 30 might deliver.

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The Fiery Furnaces is another band that can only accurately be described as quirky.

A sibling duo from Brooklyn, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have made eight records of utterly bizarre indie prog. Imagine if 1970s Yes were a garage band with a junky sensibility and a restless proclivity to dismantle and reinvent their songs live, and you’re getting close to the idea. 10-minute songs that never stand still, keyboards that sound like they’ve been dropped down a set of stairs, and lyrics that feel patched together from dreams. Oh, and they once made a concept album with their grandmother. I don’t really know any other band like them.

It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that the Friedbergers need each other. On his own, Matthew just spirals off into space – his double-album solo effort Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School was the most dense and inaccessible thing he’s done, which is saying something, and he’s neck-deep into an eight-LP crazy-go-round called Solos, in which he plays one instrument for each installment. Matthew obviously needs his sister to ground him.

But Eleanor also needs her brother to add imagination and creativity to her work. Her solo debut, Last Summer, is without doubt the most grown-up and sedate album to bear the Friedberger name. And it’s boring. Boring, boring, boring.

Friedberger’s lyrics are still strange and wonderful, and her fascinating voice, complete with that shove-too-many-syllables-together thing she does, is in full effect here. But the songs… the songs are snoozers. Two minutes into each one, and you’ve heard all it has to offer. Drums, bass, guitar, piano, two or three chords, repeat. Slip into a coma. “Roosevelt Island” is one of the only signs of life here, its Stevie Wonder clavinet underpinning a dynamic bass line. But the song still goes nowhere. The only bright light on the entire record is “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight,” on which Friedberger finally remembers to write a chorus. Otherwise, everything here is a miss.

And I think this album illustrates my above point pretty well – there’s a balance that needs to be struck. Matthew has decided to follow every whim, and never grow up, and his work is pretty close to unlistenable. Eleanor, meanwhile, has jumped into maturity with both feet, and come up with sonic wallpaper. Matthew needs Eleanor to help him focus like an adult, and Eleanor needs Matthew to remind her of what it was like to be a child. That is my wish for the next Fiery Furnaces album – something that walks that balance as well as They Might Be Giants do.

Wow, full circle. How often does that happen?

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That’ll do it for me this week. I’ve been overwhelmed with other duties, both personal and professional, so I’m going to have to cut it (relatively) short. Next week, Iona makes a double record, and some other Cornerstone discoveries do their thing. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.