Monday, January 23, 2012

Not the only dust my mother raised.

Miscellaneous T

Are there any more dreaded words in the English language than "B-sides collection"? By definition these are albums composed of the stuff that wasn't good enough to make it onto the regular albums. These are the types of albums designed specifically to appeal to fans - many of whom probably own some of the material already, or who come along later in hopes of catching up on what they missed. How do you judge these things? The fans, because they're fans, will love the material in whatever format it is released; casual fans and critics are usually advised to steer clear. Think back for a minute on just how many B-sides compilations you own that actually reward repeated listenings. I'll give you Incesticide, Black Market Clash - I'm sure you can think of a few others. (Sixties groups don't count, for reasons which should be obvious once you think about it.)

They Might Be Giants maybe aren't quite in the same category as Nirvana or the Clash, but the material from their fertile late eighties / early nineties period nevertheless represents their peak, the point where years of hustling in the New York club scene began to pay enormous dividends in terms of skill and songwriting prowess. If there is one element that has defined the group since very early on and through to the present, it's professionalism: as weird as some of their weirdest material can get, their strangest songs nevertheless sound incredibly solid. Their debut was the closest they ever got to actual "lo-fi" material, and from that point forward the band became increasingly professional. By the time they reached Lincoln even their off-the-cuff song doodles sounded focused and rich. The material released on Miscellaneous T represents a snapshot of the band at the exact moment of its transformation from a pair of strange, ambitious amateurs and into the same well-oiled nerd rock machine that recorded the world's least likely platinum record, 1990's Flood.

Miscellaneous T is a B-sides album of the old school: a compilation of the tracks included on their first four singles, with a couple oddballs like a remix and radio edits. Everything except for the single mix of "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" was eventually reprinted in the 1997 box set Then: The Early Years. This disc is out of print and, really, if you have Then you have everything you need. And yet every time I need to rip a copy of Then onto a new iPod or iTunes, I always take the time to replace the tracks from that box set into their Miscellaneous T play order. I wasn't fortunate enough to actually buy the singles on their initial release - of course not - so this album was my first exposure to these songs. And in my mind, after listening to this album so many times in the early and mid 90s, this is how these songs should be heard. It's not a "real" album, but it's a good album that holds together as a cohesive unit shockingly well given its portmanteau nature.

Make no mistake: this shouldn't be anyone's first They Might Be Giants album. But if your first exposure is Flood or Lincoln, this is a perfectly fine candidate for your second They Might Be Giants album.

Many of these songs are obviously what we would consider B-side material: something like their pseudo-industrial synthesizer cover of Rodgers and Hart's "Lady Is A Tramp" would probably have seemed even weirder in the context of a proper album. "Hello Radio" and "Mr. Klaw" are very brief sketches that wouldn't have been out of place on their debut but wouldn't necessarily have added anything, either. Every TMBG fan has a soft spot for track thirteen, the "untitled" skit produced from a long message accidentally left on their "Dial-A-Song" service in the late 80s. "Who's 'There May Be Giants?'" asks a bemused middle-aged New York matron.

But then once you cut away the fat, you're left with a core of tracks that are every bit as good - and in some cases even better - than most of the material from their first two records. "Hey Mister DJ I Thought You Said We Had A Deal," "Nightgown of the Sullen Moon," "It's Not My Birthday," "We're the Replacements" - some of their very best tracks, sloughed off for B-sides. Gave upon their works, ye mighty, and despair.

Next: The Big Time.

(out of five)

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