I can’t vividly describe the first time I heard ‘I Can Hear You’. There was no situation I found myself in life where the song was playing on the radio and felt a wave of emotion. It just happened when I listened to Factory Showroom in full in 2010 or so. I can’t remember how I felt about the song on that first listen, though revisits to it revealed another noteworthy gem of the group’s within their illustrious discography.
The performance of ‘I Can Hear You’ was recorded at the Edison Historic Site in New Jersey on wax cylinder alongside three other songs on 27th April 1996, explaining the low audio quality of the track. Its thin sound also makes it quite hard to decipher what instruments are being played on it. All these years I never thought there was a bass being played in it, yet close listening made it much clearer. It also has quite a simple yet punchy rhythm to it which makes it that much enjoyable to hear.
The lyrics are sets of dialogue from other low-quality transmissions that you may come across in daily life, whether it be from a passenger in a plane calling a close friend from the sky to those intercom towers you order your food from at a fast-food drive-through. There’s a sad feeling I get from this song, I can’t explain it. There’s something about the sound of it and its cyclical nature – the ‘chorus’ at the beginning of the song comes back around at the end – that sometimes gets to me. It’s far from being one of the band’s best songs. Though I enjoy it a lot. Good tune.
The band replicated the recording process of the song as part of a Millennium special of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in 1999. This version is just as good, if not probably better, given some string flourishes that enhance its effect.
“Hovering Sombrero” is a song about the saddening reminder that time flies; before you know it, the things you had grown accustomed to when growing up will all be replaced and you will only have the memories to remember them by. John Linnell sings of a sombrero that continues to ‘hover on’ as the seconds, years, and minutes roll by. Obviously it’s not a literal wide-brimmed hat of Mexico; that would have to float back down to the ground some time. I do have the idea that the ‘hovering sombrero’ is actually the Solar System. It looks a bit like a sombrero if you really think about it, and in line of the song I think it makes a bit of sense.
The seventh offering on the band’s eighth album contains standard rock instrumentation consisting of acoustic and electric guitars, the rhythm section, and a keyboard that makes an appearance here and there. Linnell’s single-tracked vocal guides you through the track; he also provides an overlapping ‘no/don’t’ backing vocal that stretches throughout various lines. It is quite beautiful in its simplicity, but you think things are just about to get started it is already the end of the song. Another great gem within their discography.
“Hopeless Bleak Despair” is another They Might Be Giants song that takes on the depressing/saddening subject matter with upbeat/happy sounding music. Appearing on the group’s eighth album Mink Car in 2001, John Linnell sings from the perspective of a person burdened by this ‘hopeless bleak despair’.
Placed between “Yeh Yeh” and “Drink!“, two tracks where John Flansburgh sings about the joys of having a good time with a girlfriend and drinking respectively, “Hopeless Bleak Despair”, sung by John Linnell, is something of a sobering listen. The narrator’s life falls apart because of this despair. His family leave him, and he is fired from his job. It isn’t until the final verse where it is revealed, amongst angelic background choir vocals, that the narrator is dead – how he died is not said but we can assume it’s suicide – and was finally separated from it. However, the narrator goes to hell while the despair ‘ascends to heaven’ so even then it gains the upper hand.
The song’s quite funny that way. After everything that has happened to him whilst alive, the narrator can’t catch a break even in the afterlife. You want to feel sorry for him but Linnell’s enthusiastic vocals and the forceful performance by the band pushes those feelings aside, and instead will have you singing along to this poor person’s problems.
When listening to They Might Be Giants’ 1986 self-titled debut for the first time, the opening drum fill for “Hide Away Folk Family” slightly caught me off guard. The four preceding songs establish the album’s upbeat and sprightly mood that you assume it’s the kind of rhythm and mood they’ll be going for throughout the whole thing. But no. “Hide Away” slows the album’s pacing down, allowing the listener to breathe for a few minutes and really feel the music.
Sung and presumably written by John Flansburgh, the track has a cosy and homey feel to it with a light lullaby-like melody to its lyrics and cute instrumentation. Take away the lyrics which creepily depict a mother and father who are paranoid about their house being burned down or blown up, and you have a perfect instrumental for a child’s bedtime song. The ‘happy music with dissonant lyrics’ trope is one that They Might Be Giants have used countless times; this is another instance in which it is executed with great effect. You wouldn’t realise what it was you were singing about unless you had a very good look at the lyrics.
“Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal” was originally going to be released on the Purple Toupee EP, when the title track was to be released as a single in 1989. For some reason the EP was shelved and the song was later placed as the opener to the band’s B Side/Remix compilation Miscellaneous T, two years later in 1991. The compilation is loved by many a They fan due to the fact that for a B Side album, the stuff on there are as brilliantly written and performed as any other song you would find on the three albums they had released by that time.
The song is a tale of a lad who is eager to get his new song on the radio, going to the local DJ to see if he can sort some things out. From the wordy title, you can probably tell that things don’t go as planned. The tale is told accompanied by catchy rhythms, an infectious melody and a delightful Carribean-like (xylophone? glockenspiel?) line and backed up by the witty lyrics of John Linnell. Notice how he cleverly pulls of a ‘Glass Onion’ and sneaks in some references to other TMBG songs in a verse. So much fun.
I could imagine this being a lead single for any album. Seeing as it was to be released with “Purple Toupee”, I assume that it was recorded during the Lincoln sessions. Goodness. I enjoy Lincoln enough as it is, but it would have been cool to have this on there. Though it’s title would have stuck out like a sore thumb on the track list.
“For Science” is a small yet dramatic track, briefly about the sighting of a UFO and soldiers being sent to meet the aliens even though it will end with their inevitable deaths but mostly about a man who begins a relationship with a female alien, knowing that he will be a slave to her love all eternity. This is all done in the name of science.
A track that was created during the making of their first album, “For Science” was first released on the “(She Was a) Hotel Detective EP” in 1988, and then re-released on the groups B-Side compilation “Miscellaneous T” (which is the album I first heard the song on).
Linnell plays the announcer at the start of the track, Flansburgh takes the role of the love-struck man, and “Lt. Anne Moore” – as she is known as on the EP – provides the female vocals.
It’s a funny little track, one that has apparently only been played live by the band three times. They’ll have their reasons as to why that is.
A person decides that they will never tell a lie again in They Might Be Giants track “Finished with Lies”, the reason being that if no one believes anything they say now they never will in the future. Somehow though in the last verse when the narrator is being checked on by an examiner, telepathy is used to rig the results…. so it looks like it is another one of those unreliable narrator type tracks that TMBG usually do. Seems like this narrator has problems – which is something that is said right at the end of the track that comes before it… I see what they did there.
“Finished with Lies” is a very standard rock tune. Standard band ensemble of guitars, bass and drums with a few erratic synthesizers here and there and backing vocals in the chorus. It is a very simple track, and I like that. Originally the track was going to be something of a slow march which you can listen to on YouTube; it’s an interesting version and makes the lyrics sound a lot more serious. But I do prefer the one on the album.