Call and Response

We sent John Flansburgh and John Linnell of THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS a CD of seven new songs, each identified only by title. Here's what they had to say about the selections.

CD Club Magazine, May 2001
by Phillip Price

JF: Hey, Linnell, sometimes I feel like we’re so picky about music that these kind of things make us look like grumps.

JL: It’s a part of me that I hide from myself as much as possible. Because I am grumpy and to me this is a competitive sport, and I'm jealous and resentful of people who have more commercial success than we do. I'm troubled that they may in fact be more talented than I am. But I must bury these feelings deep, deep down inside.

JF: I can’t believe you said that out loud. I say good luck to all bands, and don’t ever get as grumpy as we are.

    The Artist: The Incredible Moses Leroy
    The Song: "Beep Beep Love"
    The Album: Electric Pocket Radio
    The Skinny: Exuberant pop music

JL: This is a Gruppo Sportivo cover, right? I'd have to go back and check, but for some reason I like my memories of that band more than this recording. These confident new wave references don't have the thrill of discovery so much as a studied expertise.

JF: That would be a rock critic-savvy choice for a cover. Gruppo Sportivo wrote some memorable songs, but I don't recall this one, although the title seems familiar. I've never been much of a fan of that 2/4 rinky-dink beat that this song has, and when there is talking in songs I categorically hate it, and when it's for cuteness or coyness, I want to jump off a bridge. I can't get past a lot of the essential qualities of this song.

    The Artist: David Byrne
    The Song: "Walk on Water"
    The Album: Look Into the Eyeball
    The Skinny: Former Talking Heads frontman returns to pop

JF: I guess this is current David Byrne. At first I thought of Ric Ocasek, which was a connection I would never make unless I didn’t know the artist. As a fan who saw Talking Heads in their original incarnation many times, its hard to say what this is missing, but it is a little safe and tends towards good taste over expression or experimentation. Not as challenging as his best work. That said, I just got a Tom Ze disc that David Byrne's label put out, and it's one of the most vivid and exciting recordings I've heard in years.

JL: I like some current David Byrne, but not for its edginess or its power to expand one's horizons. This seems like he's fine tuning a sound he's comfortable with.

    The Artist: Dolly Parton
    The Song: "I Get a Kick Out of You"
    The Album: Little Sparrow
    The Skinny: Dolly does bluegrass

JL: Victoria Williams? I have to say I've never really fallen under the spell of Cole Porter's high class witticisms, but this is a pleasantly casual approach.

JF: Dolly Parton. Too often praised as a guilty pleasure and a camp icon, but really an underacknowledged legitimate talent, and a great songwriter. For a year I had access to The Outlaw Music Channel, a start-up cable channel that broadcast Willie Nelson's personal archives of country shows from the 60's and 70's, including the "Porter Wagner Show" that featured Dolly’s earliest appearances, which are shockingly fresh. As for this recording, what a weird version of this song. Bluegrass Cole Porter. Some really clean pickin'. The high harmonies are pretty thrilling. She seems a bit out of her element, although I don't know why.

    The Artist: Idlewild
    The Song: "Little Discourage"
    The Album: 100 Broken Windows
    The Skinny: Earnest guitar-driven alterna-pop

JF: Although he has a different character to his voice, there is an element of Michael Stipe in the vocal, and the verse guitar really suggests an early R.E.M. connection, but filtered through more contempo-grunge guitar constructs. I wish the arrangement was less generic. It's kind of hard to pay full attention when everything is just going.

JL: Also some early Smiths in the rhythm section.

    The Artist: BS2000
    The Song: "The Scrappy"
    The Album: Simply Mortified
    The Skinny: Project featuring Beastie Boys Ad-Rock

JL: I can't tell if there’s some specific reason we've been called upon to respond to these particular songs. Were they chosen specifically to elicit our reactions? If not, then what is the connection? If so, then what is the connection? This one has a wacky Beastie Boys kind of vocal and groovy Eighties production. Should we take offense? Should we graciously point out the bold originality?

JF: I like this song. It's very charming in a very dopey way. Wildly casual and un-worked out. The Casio keyboard is pretty blunt, and the crazy doublespeed ending with screaming is insane.

    The Artist: Jill Scott
    The Song: "Getting' in Tha Way"
    The Album: Who Is Jill Scott?
    The Skinny: New Philadelphia Soul

JL: I guess this eliminates the possibility that this list was tailored for They Might Be Giants.

JF: Jill Scott is pleasant enough, although this track reminds me way too much of "Tyrone" by Erykah Badu, which is one of my all-time favorite R&B songs. I love the way that track is recorded live, with an audience responding to the immediate idea of the song, along with a slammin', real live rhythm section. This seems a bit safe in comparison, and very much in the same vein.

    The Artist: The Young Fresh Fellows
    The Song: "Mamie Dunn: Employee of the Month"
    The Album: Because We Hate You
    The Skinny: Quirky, punchy pop-rock

JL: I didn’t know who this was until Flans told me, but it sounded to me like a kindred band.

JF: I love this band, the Young Fresh Fellows, or maybe it's YFF's front man Scott McCaughey. He is so street level in his writing, almost prosaic, which has been a real influence on me. This song name-checks Krispy Kreme, and deals with an every day scene in a non-hamfisted, non-judgmental way-a topic many writers have few real insights into. Scott McCaughey has a special talent for capturing the inner dullness of dullness.