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They Might Be Giants
Here Come The 123s
Disney Sound
www.theymightbegiants.com


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 this one.

Note: the visually inclined can purchase either ABCs or 123s with a companion DVD.

-Dan Warren


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