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Might Be Giants: No!
Posted: June 18,
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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