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The Land Where We Invisibly Rule: They Might Be Giants’ Glean

They Might Be Giants' Glean

Man, you never lost your edge.

— They Might Be Giants, “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” Glean (2015)

They Might Be Giants‘ Glean — due out April 21 — is the band’s best record since its 1986 eponymous debut, affectionately known as The Pink Album (due to its pink cover). Like that record, it has a range of musical styles, unusual subject matter, and the unexpected lyrical turns that make a They Might Be Giants song a They Might Be Giants song. It’s even similar in length: the debut offered 38 minutes and 31 seconds of music; the new record provides 39 minutes and 1 second.

Spend some time reflecting.

— They Might Be Giants, “It’s Good to Be Alive,” Glean (2015)

That said, perhaps it feels like a classic because all but three of the songs are familiar. Only “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” “Aaa,” and the instrumental title track had not previously been released through their weekly Dial-a-Song.  Much to the delight of fans (me!), the band re-launched this service in January, which from 1983 until 2006 ran off John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn answering machine. (In 2006, the answering machine finally gave up the ghost.) The new web-based version shares not demos — as the original iteration did — but finished songs, complete with videos. Those of us (me, again!) who subscribed to They Might Be Giants’ 2015 Instant Fan Club have also been able to download these songs each week, and (on some weeks) bonus tracks as well.  So, prior to listening to Glean for the first time, I had — according to my iTunes playlist — already heard “Good to Be Alive” (released March 10) and “Answer” (Feb. 17) fourteen times each.  I’d listened to “Erase” (Jan. 6), “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2” (Jan. 26), “I Can Help the Next in Line” (Mar. 3), “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel” (Jan. 13), and “Hate the Villanelle” (Feb. 3) ten times each. By offering bonus tracks as well, They Might Be Giants has even been providing the b-sides to the singles.  So, one reason Glean arrives with this classic vibe is that I’ve been listening to most of its songs and b-sides for the past three and a half months.

I can help the next in line.

Do we have a problem here?

— They Might Be Giants, “I Can Help The Next in Line,” Glean (2015)

But, to puncture holes in the “familiarity” argument I’ve been advancing, I’ve been listening to these songs a lot because they’re really good songs.  The reason I know these songs well is because John Linnell and John Flansburgh are — astonishingly, thirty years later — still making great records. One of these is a catchy number about customer service, beginning with typical customer-is-always-right lingo (“I can help the next in line. / Have you been with us before?”), but quickly escalating into a confrontation (“I don’t think I like your tone”) and the threat of violence (“Put your hands where I can see them”).  They’re still following their respective muses, pursuing unusual ideas. Who else writes a song that is a villanelle about writing a villanelle?  First of all, a villanelle is hard to write. It’s a highly structured, complex poetic form that, as the Poetry Foundation’s website says, consists “of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas.” Second, they’ve not just written a villanelle.  They’ve written a meta-villanelle, documenting some of the challenges of writing one of these. Third, they’ve set the entire thing to music. Brilliant!

It might seem like a thankless existence

But don’t lose hope just yet.

You’ll be remembered for your persistence

And this is the thanks you get.

— They Might Be Giants, “Answer,” Glean (2015)

The persistence of creative intelligent people amidst rising oceans of despair gives me hope.  That Flansburgh and Linnell, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Sleater-Kinney, Tim Egan, Kadir Nelson, Frank Turner, Jeanne Birdsall, Jaqueline Woodson, Lane Smith and so many others continue to make good art improves the quality of my life. I especially enjoy the optimistic ambivalence — or would that be ambivalent optimism? — of They Might Be Giants’ approach.  On the band’s first record, “Don’t Let’s Start” advised us, “Everybody dies frustrated and sad, / And that is beautiful.”  On this one, “Answer” offers a midtempo but cheery response to disappointment: “It may take an ocean of whiskey and time / To wash all of the letdown out of your mind / And I may not be the one you expected but I / Am the answer to all your prayers.”  That’s it exactly.  To quote one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, “There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” There’s plenty of light in Glean, light through which the band filters absurdities, melancholia, poetic challenges, customer-service fiascos, and… is “Erase” about cognitive decline or the creative process? Or, perhaps, all of the above?

Glean is already one of my favorite records of 2015. Check it out. And whether or not you’ve subscribed to the Fan Club, you can hear new They Might Be Giants videos each Tuesday this year. Check those out, too. They’ll remind you why (to quote another Glean song) “It’s good to be alive.”  It is.

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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  “Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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Thirty Jaunty Songs

Thirty Jaunty SongsYes.  Spring is here, which means flowers blooming and (for academics, at least) the rapidly accelerating roller-coster that is the second half of the semester.  It is thus time for some jaunty music.  Enjoy!

1)    You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams       Fats Waller and His Rhythm (1939)    2:51

How is it that this song is not more widely known and recorded?  “I’ve looked the universe over from Wack-a-nac-sac to Dover,” and… I’m aware of only two recordings: this one, and one by Peter Mulvey.  This is one of my favorites because, well, how can you listen to this and not smile?  Although I expect this song is on more than one compilation, the only place I’ve found it is Fats Waller‘s The Middle Years Part 2 (1938-1940).  The song’s composers are Al Hoffman (best known for co-writing “Mairzy Doats”), Al Goodhart (co-wrote “Fit as a Fiddle”), and Manny Kurtz.

2)    Funiculi Funicula  The Mills Brothers (1938)    2:31

Another favorite that always makes me happy.  The original Italian version of the song (1880, music by Luigi Denza, lyrics by Peppino Turco) commemorated the opening of the first funicular cable car up Mount Vesuvius. Edward Oxenford’s English lyrics retain the cheeriness but not the meaning of the original.  This song appears in more than one compilation, but it comes to you here via the Mills BrothersThe 1930s Recordings Volume 5.

3)    Alouette     The Delta Rhythm Boys (1958)    2:42

Confession: that Target ad introduced me to the Delta Rhythm Boys, whose sound seems to fall in between the Mills Brothers and doo-wop.

The Delta Rhythm Boys are a jump-blues vocal group.  They performed in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s, but in the 1950s moved to Europe, where they remained for the rest of their careers.  Perhaps this is why the group is not as well-known in their native country, and why the CDs I could find mostly seem to have been produced in Europe.

4)    Sh-Boom   The Chords (1954)    2:26

Is there a more perfect doo-wop number than the Chords’ “Sh-Boom”?  The Crew Cuts’ cover (released the same year) sold more copies, but nothing matches the original version.  This was the Chords’ sole hit.  Below, an a capella rendition, and further evidence that all popular culture will eventually end up on YouTube.

5)    Boum        Charles Trenet (1938)    2:35

This one’s in French, but includes lots of imitations of animals.  Silly and fun, from the vocalist best known (in the U.S.) for “La Mer” — the song performed (in English) by Bobby Darin as “Beyond the Sea.”

6)    A Newt Called Tiny          Wee Hairy Beasties (2006)    0:18

Delightful pun.  It’s the sort of song that, I think, should be sung on playgrounds everywhere.  Indeed, it sounds like it’s an older song, but I think the group wrote it.  Comprised of Kelly Hogan and two members of the Mekons, the Wee Hairy Beasties are a supergroup of sorts.  This track appears on their first record, Animal Crackers.

7)    Swinging on a Star         Bing Crosby (1944)    2:32

Crosby sang this song in the film Going My Way (1944).  Written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, it won the Oscar for Best Original Song.  I like the arrangement on the record better than that in the film (below), but the movie is notable for its inclusion of a racially integrated boys’ choir.

8)    Mais Que Fait La Nasa?    Paris Combo (2001)    4:04

For a few years in the late 1990s and into the first decade of the 2000s, Paris Combo put out some great records.  Then,… they stopped.  I don’t know why.  I do know that they’re currently on tour.  Perhaps there’ll be new recordings soon?  There are some new demos on their website — so, I’m hopeful.  This particular song appears on their album, Attraction (2001).

9)    Love Astronaut    Murder Mystery (2007)    3:01

This extremely catchy song is from the band’s first LP, Are You Ready for the Heartache Because Here It Comes (2007).  That record contains a number of finely crafted pop songs, but this is my favorite.  After a few years of silence (at least in terms of new releases), Murder Mystery put out a new EP earlier this year: Problems.

10) Flying Home (Take B)      Ella Fitzgerald (1945)    2:30

One of the classic records to feature scat-singing, an art at which Ella Fitzgerald excels.  Her ability to use her voice as an instrument, improvising solos and syllables … is truly astonishing.  For more great scatting, check out her “Oh, Lady Be Good” (Decca, 1947), “Cotton Tail” (1967, on The Concert Years 1953-1967), and the great “Mack the Knife” (1960, on The Complete Ella in Berlin).  The box set Twelve Nights in Hollywood is also well worth your while.  This track appears on Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings.

11) Float On    Modest Mouse  (2004)    3:28

From the album Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

12) What Would Jay-Z Do?    Ben Lee (2007)    2:55

A very good question, and a happy song, too.  From Lee‘s album, Ripe (2007).

13) It’s a Great Life (If You Don’t Weaken)    Sam Lanin & His Orchestra (1929)    3:14

The song that inspired the title of Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (1996).   Lyrics by Leo Robin, music by Richard Whiting and Newell Chase.

14) Pick Yourself Up  Fred Astaire (1936)    2:56

Composed by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, the song appears in Swing Time (1936), one of the great Astaire-Rogers films.  Not that you asked, but the other great ones are Top Hat (1935), The Gay Divorcee (1934), and Shall We Dance? (1937).

15) On the Sunny Side of the Street    Louis Armstrong (1937)    2:55

Composed by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, this song can be found in versions by Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey (with the Sentimentalists), and Dinah Washington.  Louis Armstrong’s recording is one of the earlier versions — the song made its debut in a 1930 Broadway musical.

16) The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)      Simon & Garfunkel (1966)    1:43

“Hello, lamppost. What’cha knowin’?”  One of Paul Simon‘s more whimsical compositions, this appears on Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966).  Below: Simon and Garfunkel on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.

17) Sweet Georgia Brown       Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli (1938)    3:08

I first heard this song (whistled) as the theme to the Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine, which aired on Sunday mornings from 1974 to 1976.  Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli’s rendition reaches you here via the compilation Swing from Paris: The Quintette of the Hot Club of France (ASV/Living Era). Music composed by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard.  Kenneth Casey’s lyrics do not appear in this rendition.

18) Linus and Lucy     Vince Guaraldi (1968)    2:59

More commonly known as the Peanuts theme, Vince Guaraldi‘s song makes its debut in Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown (1964), appearing again in A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and many subsequent Peanuts productions.  This particular recording appears on Oh, Good Grief! (1968).

19) Il sole è di tutti       Franco Micalizzi (1968)    1:58

From the soundtrack to the film of the same name.  Appears on The Original Masters: Italian Comedy 60’s, Vol. 1

20) Ad Ogni Costo (At Any Cost)      Ennio Morricone (1967)    2:53

Continuing the theme of Italian film soundtracks from the 1960s, here’s one of the greatest Morricone tunes.  It appears in the film of the same name, and is on many compilations.  But it comes to you here via Cocktail Mix Volume 4: Soundtracks With a Twist!

21) The Liberty Bell March     Her Majesty’s Royal Marines & Lt. Colonel G.A.C. Hoskins (1992)    3:20

You know it as the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but this John Philip Sousa piece is an American military march composed in 1893.

22) Whatchamacallit    Esquivel (1958)    2:33

From Esquivel‘s Exploring New Sounds in Stereo (1958).

23) Le fate (m8)           Armando Trovaioli (1966)    1:16

Returning to Italian film soundtracks from the 1960s, here’s the title song from the film of the same name.  This track appears on The Original Masters: The Film Music For Alberto Sordi.

24) Mah Na Mah Na   Mah Na Mah Na (1969)    1:54

Composed by Piero Umiliani for Svezia, inferno e paradiso, the song achieved lasting fame via its long association with the Muppets.

25) It Don’t Mean a Thing       Duke Ellington with Joya Sherrill, Marie Ellington and Kay Davis, vocals (1945)    3:01

“It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot. / Just give that rhythm everything you’ve got!”  Composed by Duke Ellington (music) and Irving Mills (lyrics).

26) Tobacco Auctioneer          Don Byron (1996)    2:36

Composed by Raymond Scott but performed by Don Byron and co., this recording appears on Byron’s Bug Music.

27) Soul Bossa Nova (Original Mix)       Quincy Jones & His Orchestra (1962)    3:11

Probably best-known today for its appearance in the Austin Powers films, the song made its debut on JonesBig Band Bossa Nova (1962).

28) The Mesopotamians          They Might Be Giants (2007)    2:58

On my imaginary radio station, this song was a big hit.  From They Might Be GiantsThe Else.

29) Bongo Bong          Manu Chao (1999)    2:56

Manu Chao‘s song first appears on his record Clandestino (1998), but this version comes from the compilation World Playground: A Musical Adventure for Kids (1999).

30) Particle Man          Mrs. Belaire’s second grade class, Ottawa Elementary School (Buchanan, MI), music director Tim McCarthy (1990)    2:06

The greatest cover of any They Might Be Giants song ever appears on Then! The Earlier Years.  The original version is on TMBG’s Flood (1990).

 

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Children’s Literature + Music = Great Album Covers

Many children’s writers and illustrators have created covers for albums.  Below, we’ll look at a dozen or so of these artists.  As is ever the case with any art posted on this website, the artwork belongs to the artists.  Visit their websites!  Buy prints!  Buy their books!  (I’ve included websites for each artist.)  Enjoy!


Saul Bass

Recently republished, Bass‘s Henri’s Walk to Paris (1962, words by Leonore Klein) is fantastic. If he did other children’s books, I’m unaware of them. He did, however, do many famous album covers.  Here are his covers for Elmer Bernstein’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1956), Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story (soundtrack, 1961).

The Man with the Golden Arm soundtrack (art by Saul Bass)

Anatomy of a Murder (art by Saul Bass)

West Side Story soundtrack (art by Saul Bass)


Guy Billout

The author-illustrator of The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea (2007) and Something’s Not Quite Right (2002), Billout has also done album covers. I’m reproducing one below — Crack the Sky’s Animal Notes (1976).  I know I’ve seen other covers, but just cant put my finger on where I’ve seen them.

Crack the Sky, Animal Notes (art by Guy Billout)


R. Gregory Christie

Christie has won Coretta Scott King Honor Awards for his children’s books Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African-American Children (1996), Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2000), and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006). Here are his covers for Justice System’s Rooftop Soundcheck (1994) and John Coltrane’s Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1997).

Justice System, Rooftop Soundcheck (art by R. Gregory Christie)

John Coltrane, Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (art by R. Gregory Christie)
Hat tip to Jules Walker Danielson for this one! And check out her interview with Christie at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.


Marcel Dzama

As far as I know, Dzama has illustrated only one children’s book — They Might Be Giants’ Bed Bed Bed (2003). Admittedly, that makes him a less likely candidate than most of the other artists included here.  Here are his covers for the Weakerthans’ Reconstruction Site (2003), Beck’s Guero (2005), and They Might Be Giants’ The Else (2007)

The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site (art by Marcel Dzama)

Beck, Guero (art by Marcel Dzama)

They Might Be Giants, The Else (art by Marcel Dzama)


Carson Ellis

Ellis (married to the Decemberists’ front man, Colin Meloy) has created many Decemberists album covers, as well as a few for other artists.  More recently, she’s worked on some cool children’s books, illustrating the late Florence Parry Heide’s Dilweed’s Revenge (2010), Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead (2009), and Meloy’s Wildwood (2011), among others.

Here are three covers she’s done for the Decemberists.

Her Majesty The Decemberists (art by Carson Ellis)

The Decemberists, Hazards of Love (art by Carson Ellis)

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (art by Carson Ellis)

And here’s the cover she did for Laura Viers’ July Flame (2010).

Laura Viers, July Flame (art by Carson Ellis)

Much, much more on Ellis’s website!  Also: Jules Walker Danielson did a great (and lavishly illustrated) interview with Ellis over on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Indeed, if you care about children’s picture books, you must read Danielson’s blog — preferably, as frequently as you can.


Jim Flora

Flora had a long career designing album covers before the record industry’s preference for photographic covers (in the 1950s, at any rate) reduced demand for his work. At that point, he turned to children’s books, writing such loopy classics as The Fabulous Firework Family (1955), The Day the Cow Sneezed (1957) and many others.  Irwin Chusid has written (and co-written) some super books on Flora, and maintains a great Flora website, from which I’ve taken the following covers: Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s Bix and Tram (1947), Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (1947), and Mambo for Cats (1955).

Bix and Tram (art by James Flora)

Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (art by James Flora)

Mambo for Cats (art by James Flora)

You can buy prints of Flora’s album covers (and other artwork) from the website.


Rodney Alan Greenblat

Greenblat has created children’s books and video games, Greenblat also created the artwork for They Might Be Giants’ first album (1986).

They Might Be Giants (art by Mark Alan Stamaty)


Crockett Johnson

I’m mostly avoiding children’s records, but Johnson‘s art for the adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed (1950) differs from the cover he did for the book (1945, which he also illustrated).  So, I thought I’d bend my rule a little and include it here.  The recording was performed by baritone-voiced Broadway actor Norman Rose, and was released by Young People’s Records and the Children’s Record Guild.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)


Richard McGuire

McGuire is a renaissance man.  He wrote and (with his band, Liquid Liquid) performed “Cavern,” the song that became the music for the classic hip-hop track “White Lines,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.  He’s created one of the most innovative experiments in comics, “Here” (1989).  He’s created four picture books, including The Orange Book (1993) and What Goes Around Comes Around (1995).  And that’s not to mention his work in film or his New Yorker covers.  Here’s his cover for Liquid Liquid’s compilation Slip in & Out of Phenomenon (2008).

Liquid Liquid, Slip in & Out of the Phenomenon (art by Richard McGuire)


Dave McKean

The prolific Dave McKean is best known for his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman.  But he’s done lots more, including album covers.  Here are his covers for Counting Crows’ This Desert Life (1999), and the UK release of Tori Amos’s single, “God” (1994).

Counting Crows, This Desert Life (art by Dave McKean)

Tori Amos, "God" (art by Dave McKean)

Hat tip, again, to Jules Walker Danielson, whose interview with McKean you should check out — it has lots of art, and even more album covers.  Indeed, the album covers you see here were lifted from her interview.


Maurice Sendak

The greatest living author-artist of children’s books has done a few album covers — many in the early 1950s, but a few later in his career, too. Here’s his art for Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish and Spanish Folk Songs (1953), Carole King’s Really Rosie (1975, lyrics by Sendak), and Shawn Colvin’s Holiday Songs and Lullabies (1988).

Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish and Spanish Folk Songs (art by Maurice Sendak)

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)

Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies (art by Maurice Sendak)


Shel Silverstein

People remember Silverstein primarily for his many children’s books, but he was also a Playboy cartoonist, and songwriter — Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and Dr. Hook’s “On the Cover of Rolling Stone” were both Silverstein songs.  He recorded several albums of his songs for adults, including Drain My Brain (1967), for which he also created the cover below.

Shel Silverstein, Drain My Brain (art by Shel Silverstein)


Lane Smith

In 1983, Smith created album covers for the Dickies’ Stukas Over Disneyland and Oingo Bongo’s Good for Your Soul.

The Dickies, Stukas Over Disneyland (art by Lane Smith) Oingo Boingo, Good for Your Soul (art by Lane Smith)

He’s posted both of these and one other on his abandoned blog, Lane Smith’s Closet: Illustrations from My Drawers.  His other abandoned blogs are also great, but Curious Pages (co-curated with Bob Shea) is fantastic.


Art Spiegelman

Best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Maus, Spiegelman has also worked on a few children’s books, including Open Me… I’m a Dog! (1997), and Jack in the Box (2008).  Here’s his art for Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones, which includes liner notes from Thomas Pynchon (!).

Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones (artwork by Art Spiegelman)


Mark Alan Stamaty

Better known for his cartoons, Stamaty has created a few children’s books, including: Who Needs Donuts? (1973), Minnie Maloney & Macaroni (1976), and Where’s My Hippopotamus? (1985). He also created the cover art and lettering for Stars of the Streets (1979).  Thanks to Richard Cohen for the tip!

Stars of the Streets (1979)


Chris Ware

Sure, Mr. Ware is primarily known for his comics & graphic novels, but he did contribute “Fairy Tale Road Rage” to the first volume of Art Spiegelman and François Mouly’s Little Lit, he writes eloquently about childhood, and… well, I like his work.  In addition to other book covers, New Yorker covers (and covers for other magazines), brilliant design work for Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, he’s done a fair few album covers.  Here is his art for the Beau Hunks’ Manhattan Minuet (1996) and Reginald R. Robinson’s Euphonic Sounds (1998).

The Beau Hunks Sextette, Manhattan Minuet (art by Chris Ware)

Reginald R. Robinson, Euphonic Sounds (art by Chris Ware)

The Hammer Gallery’s Ware site has art for sale.


I assembled this page when I should have been doing other work.  Have I missed some artists of children’s books who also worked on album covers?  Yes, certainly.  Will people point this out in the comments section, below?  I certainly hope so!  Isn’t that what comments sections are for?

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They Might Be Geniuses

They Might Be Giants

They might indeed be geniuses.  What other band has, in the last quarter century, produced such consistently great music?  Music for films, TV, adults, children, and mammals of any description?  I ask you: Who? Commemorating new music by They Might Be Giants (who, dear reader, are this blogger’s favorite band), here are nine TMBG songs everyone should know — complete with videos.  Happy They Might Be Giants Awareness Day, everyone!

“Don’t Let’s Start,” from They Might Be Giants (1986)

From the band’s debut album, we learn that “No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful. / Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.”

“Ana Ng,” from Lincoln (1988)

On TMBG’s second album — with cover art by Brian Dewan — John Linnell sings about a beloved whose “voice is a backwards record,” and who lives on the other side of the world.

“Birdhouse in Your Soul,” from Flood (1990)

The band’s breakthrough (and major label debut) Flood brought two hits (yes, hits!), a cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and the above song.  “Everyone must listen to me. / Filibuster vigilantly.”

My favorite song from their next album, Apollo 18 (1992), is “Mammal.”  However, I can locate only a few performance videos on YouTube  — and the audio is of middling quality.  So, we’ll move on to…

“Meet James Ensor,” originally on John Henry (1994)

This is a live recording from 2009.  John Flansburgh sings a song about “Belgium’s famous painter. / Dig him up and shake his hand. / Understand the man.”  Yeah.

“Doctor Worm” from Severe Tire Damage (1998)

One of three studio tracks from a live album, this was a pop hit in Australia.  In my private universe of interesting music, it was also a pop hit.  It is a song about a character who, as he says, is “not a real doctor, but I am a real worm.  I am an actual worm.”  And a worm who plays the drums, too.

Speaking of doctors, TMBG would go on to write and record — with Robin “Goldie” Goldwasser on vocals — “Dr. Evil” (1999) for Austin Powers.  Next up, more soundtrack music:

“Boss of Me,” the theme song to Malcolm in the Middle (2001)

Above, TMBG perform the song on Mr. Jay Leno’s late-night television program.

Oh, and we must not forget the tune I think of as the “They Might Be Giants Happy Birthday Song”:

“Older,” from Long Tall Weekend (1999)

Above, TMBG perform the song on Robert Krulwich’s excellent (but short-lived) television program, Brave New World.

There are many excellent songs on Mink Car (2001), among them “Another First Kiss,” “Working Undercover for the Man,” and a cover of Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh.”  But I’m not finding suitable videos on YouTube.  Likewise, No (2002) is a great record, and the band’s first children’s record.  In addition to the title track, there’s “John Lee Supertaster,” “Violin,” and “Where Do They Make Balloons?”… but the YouTube videos aren’t helping us here.

“Bastard Wants to Hit Me” from The Spine (2004)

Above, Laika Studio (creators of Coraline) offer a light-hearted animation for a song exploring one of TMBG’s recurring themes (paranoia).  TMBG wrote songs for Coraline, but only the “Other Father Song” made it into the film.  “Be Careful What You Pack” (originally intended for Coraline) can be found on The Else.

“The Mesopotamians,” from The Else (2007)

I love the idea of Mesopotamians on tour, squabbling in the back of their Econoline van.

“Nine Bowls of Soup” from Here Come the 123s! (2008)

The deadpan absurdity of this makes me smile every time I hear it. Why an ichthyosaur?  Why the airplane?   The song moves calmly forward through all of its silliness.  “Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  / Whew, I really thought that that was it.”

And, yes, the above song is why I’ve chosen only nine TMBG videos.  Enjoy!

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