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Just Kidding

 

They Might Be Giants: No!

Idlewild/Rounder, 2002

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: June 18, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Given They Might Be Giants' distinctive approach to songwriting, the concept of the popular avant-egghead duo recording a children's album makes a startling amount of sense. Kids' songs, after all, need to be clear and accessible, but work best when delivered with a dollop of whimsy; all traits that the Giants' most recognizable works possess in abundance. But to be truly effective, kid songs need to be intelligent; if pre-schoolers can handle the grisly fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, they can certainly wrap their brains around such classic slices of TMBG absurdity as "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," right?

Unfortunately, it's on this very point that NO! wavers. The best songs here -the Rip Van Winkle-esque parable "Four of Two," the portentously silly "The Edison Museum," -- pass the crucial litmus test; they'd sound equally at home on a "proper" Giants album, and are direct enough in content and melody to be engaging across the age spectrum. But for every nugget like the breezy opener "Fibber Island," the Giants serve up PBS pabulum like "In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle," an annoyingly innocuous ode to crossing the street at the corners that seems tailor-made to be piped into the children's section of your local Barnes & Noble for all eternity.

At other points, the Giants -- John Flansburgh and John Linnell -- gamely attempt a fusion of kid-friendly concepts with their nonsensical sensibilities, but inexplicably stumble: "Violin" strings together a succession of non-sequiturs to neither educational or imaginative effect; "I Am Not Your Broom," while initially promising, peters out before realizing the potential in its tale of a mutinous cleaning implement; and "I Am A Grocery Bag" hopes that a grocery list set to a jocular beat is enough to capture young imaginations. (Hint: It's not.)

Which isn't to say that NO! is a complete disappointment. For the most part, even its misses make sturdy and enjoyable songs that small fry might appreciate, as on the sing-songy "Where Do They Make Balloons?," the slightly rocking title track and the breezy ballad "Lazyhead and Sleepybones," which sounds like an XTC outtake. But while they may be engaging, such songs fall far short of being challenging, which is a real puzzle given the Johns' penchant for challenging and insistently likable songcraft. Ah, well -- maybe Robyn Hitchcock will give the children's genre a go one of these days.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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