I've spent the past six months working as a kindergarten teacher
in Taiwan, and realized for the first time how perceptive, imaginative,
and capable young children are. I've also realized how few children's
authors, filmmakers, and musicians seem to understand this.
So I am reviewing They Might Be Giants' third children's
album, Here Come The 123s, from a teacher's perspective
as well as a music writer's. And I can't overstate my admiration
for what bandleaders John Flansburgh and John Linnell
have accomplished. The songs on Here Come The 123s are
challenging, open-ended, and rich with subtle details, tangents,
and bits of miscellaneous knowledge - in short, precious fuel
for children's innate curiosity.
Here Come The 123s, of course, is a collection of songs
either specifically or loosely written about numbers. It's a companion
to the band's 2005 release Here Come The ABCs, and the
two records are nearly identical in spirit, intent, and quality.
And, like any They Might Be Giants release, both albums put the
work of two exceptional melody-writers on striking display. Both
albums are also packed with odd instrumentation, musical detours,
obscure vocabulary words, and - what could be the main sticking
point for many listeners who find the band's music flat-out irritating
- two of the most nasal voices in contemporary music. But if you
aren't put off by the vocals, and are entertained rather than
aggravated by the band's brand of left-field musical experimentation
and studio tinkering (spend ten minutes listening to any They
Might Be Giants album, and you'll know which side you're on),
Here Come The 123s works equally brilliantly as children's
entertainment and as engaging escapism for more world-weary listeners.
In the context of a children's record, the band's eccentricities
veer from the darker inclinations of their "adult"
recordings - song titles like "High Five!" and "One
Dozen Monkeys" hardly recall back-catalog downers like
"Why Must I Be Sad?" and "Hopeless Bleak Despair."
And the kid-appropriate lyrics, of course, replace melancholy
and vaguely depraved subject matter with whimsy and lively wordplay.
In the end, though, all three of the band's children's releases
preserve the complete essence of a They Might Be Giants album.
Since there is too much wit and weirdness on Here Come The
123s to mention here, a few highlights should suffice. There
is a party attended exclusively by polygons ("Nonagon")
and a song dedicated to three-eyed crustaceans ("Triops Has
Three Eyes"). Flansburgh offers a quick lesson in Spanish-language
arithmetic in "I Can Add," and a bicycle-riding monkey
named Larry makes an appearance during "One Dozen Monkeys."
An ichthyosaur explains his atypical use for bowls of soup during
one of the record's most musically adept and lyrically engaging
songs - shrouded by the conversely straight-faced title "Nine
Bowls Of Soup." Linnell even plays philosopher on "One
Everything": "What if you drew a giant circle? / What
if it went around all there is? / Then would there still be such
a thing as an outside / and does that question even make any sense?"
I can't close this review without a jab at John and John for
joining up with Disney for both this record and Here Come The
ABCs, but the corporate ties seem to have allowed them to
create an impressive multimedia project, and they seem to have
retained absolute control over the music. So, outside of the album's
final two tracks - one is a theme song for the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
TV show, and the other ("Hot Dog!") was written for
the same show - there's no indication that the music was compromised
in any way.
Complaints aside, this is a review of a They Might Be Giants
album. And, while Linnell and Flansburgh have been responsible
for a lot of remarkable music since their debut in 1986, they've
rarely sounded like they're enjoying themselves as much as they
do on Here Come The 123s. Even the awkward and uninspired
moments on the record sound charming when they're performed with
such unaffected enthusiasm. And, for my part, it isn't often that
I've enjoyed a They Might Be Giants album as much as I've enjoyed
Note: the visually inclined can purchase either ABCs or
123s with a companion DVD.
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