I often find myself trying hard to tamp down the feeling that I’ve discovered the one true good idea, if only people would listen to me. But I’m going to throw this out there anyway, even though some young Disney music supervisor is almost certainly going to read this and get a promotion and all of the credit for it: How come “She’s Actual Size” by They Might Be Giants isn’t on the soundtrack for either of Marvel’s Ant-Man movies?
I mean, if ever there was a band that smuggled real feelings inside of the musical equivalent of four-color pop-maximalist superhero punch-ups, it’s They Might Be Giants. “She’s Actual Size,” an early highlight on the 1992 record “Apollo 18,” is one of any number of TMBG songs that sound absolutely soundtrack-ready (a side-gig the band would in fact pursue in later years). I put it on recently in search of a bright pick-me-up in the midst of November’s doldrums, and it mostly worked, though I had forgotten how much of the record is dedicated to dark moods, even by this band’s standards.
TMBG have been pioneers in the pursuit of the secretly sad, but there’s something about “Apollo 18.” It might be the record’s transitional nature, standing between the band’s early days as a duo with a drum machine and their future as a full-on band with occasional horn section. It’s all recognizably TMBG — their big break from listener expectations would be on the next LP — but it’s also quite experimental. One of its singles is built around “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” like an unorthodox sequel, like the film “Return to Oz” in relation to its technicolor predecessor.
Half of the album, by track listing anyway, is taken up by a suite of short bursts of music, most of them just a couple of seconds long, sounding quite like a band recording all the unfinished ideas in their songwriting notebook. The intention, originally, was for the listener to put the CD on shuffle (1992 was 26 years ago as I write this), with those short tracks breaking things up such that just about every playthrough would be unique. Listen to them all together and there’s a pleasantly unsettling “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House” vibe. (Look it up!) One more example of the band being ahead of its time.