I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now, because I knew that my inherent bias towards all things They Might Be Giants-related would leave me predisposed to write a positive review right off the bat without giving the record a serious, critical listen. To the untrained eye, this is going to seem like a waste of time, since I’m about to worship at a Giant’s feet once again, but trust me, I’ve been listening to this record pretty closely for a while, and the praise I’m about to heap on it is well-earned.
Of the 16 songs on John Linnell’s long-awaited solo debut, 15 are named for 15 states of the union, while the 16th, “The Songs of the 50 States,” serves as a kind of theme song for the project. The unusual format allows for some interesting musical experiments. Musically, Linnell’s unique take on each state sometimes fits the image I have of life in the state in question, (“Michigan,” for example, sounds like a cross between a beer barrel polka and a college football fight song, and “Utah” is as dirgish and demented as I’d imagine life among the Mormons), and sometimes seems out of left field (“West Virginia” sounds like the Doors’ Ray Manzarek jamming with TMBG), but the results are never boring. Oddly, the instrumentals seem to come closest to meeting my conception of the states involved — for example, “Illinois” is twisted hurdy gurdy music, while “Pennsylvania” is a quirky gypsy dance, and “Mississippi” features a bass clarinet doing a fair approximation of the “M-I-crooked-letter-crooked-letter” chant we all learned as kids having trouble spelling that state’s name. That’s not to say that the lyrics aren’t relevant, either, though, as Linnell makes such observations as “Iowa is a witch,” “Oregon is bad,” and most interestingly, “Arkansas,” about a ship the exact size and shape of Bill Clinton’s home state. The bottom line here is that every track is fun, interesting, and exciting.
To answer the two questions most likely to be on TMBG fans’ minds, though: 1) While some of the stuff here sounds very TMBG-ish (“Maine,” “South Carolina,” “The Songs of the 50 States,”) there’s an equal amount of stuff that sounds like nothing Linnell’s ever attempted with his long-time partner, John Flansburgh. For example, “Idaho” is low key, moody, and dark, with a car alarm blaring quietly to itself in the background, in time with the music — it sounds annoying in print, but on the record, it works. 2) How does it stack up against Flansburgh’s side project, Mono Puff? Well, it’s a close call, but I can’t help but note that I’ve been spinning this disc a lot more than I’ve listened to either of Mono Puff’s two releases to date.
In closing, I’d just like to point out that Linnell may humbly profess (on the album’s theme song) “I’m not gonna say they’re great/I ain’t gonna say they ain’t,” I think that after a few listens to the extra-catchy tracks on State Songs , most listeners are going to relate more closely to another line in the song, “every state a different composition/keeping me awake/day and night/can’t get them out of my mind.” State Songs is brilliant, and my only thought after listening to it is “bring on the other 35 states, and hey, if Linnell can keep this up, maybe it’s time to add a few new ones!”