They Might Be Giants has spent the better part of 25 years crafting such peppy, compact little pop songs that it seems redundant to segregate their tunes recorded specifically for children from the rest of their songbook. Nevertheless, they've cultivated a dedicated following over the past decade for the kid stuff, and their Variety Playhouse gig March 5-6 features both a Friday night show for ages 14 and up and a family show at 2 p.m. Saturday. In compiling this list (which loosely goes in chronological order), I decided to include tunes with educational value that weren't on their children's recordings. I also avoided deceptively upbeat tunes like their classic "Particle Man," which starts like a riff on the old "Spider-man" song but works in TMBG's sardonic streak with lines like "Is a depressed, or is he a mess? Does he feel totally worthless?"
1. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," (Flood). They Might Be Giants incessantly catchy cover of The Four Lads' nonsensical novelty song from 1953 became one of the bands' biggest hits. This musical geographic footnote also helped introduce TMBG to young listeners when "Tiny Toon Adventures" animated a cartoon version of the song (that is, incidentally, a zillion times better than the song's official music video, although Craig Ferguson's lip-sync is pretty fun). "Tiny Toons'" "Particle Man" isn't bad, either.
2. "James K. Polk" (Factory Showroom). Originally recorded as a B-side to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople), this tribute to America's 11th president hits the highlights of Polk's biography and takes particular pleasure in his nickname, "The Napoleon of the Stump." For a witty, old-fashioned touch, the bridge appears to make use of a musical saw.
3. "Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass of Incandescent Gas)" (Severe Tire Damage). TMBG has recorded plenty of rave-ups, but maybe none has more dizzy, rapid-patter urgency as this live cover from Tom Glazer's 1965 cosmological album Space Songs. Ironically, the song contains scientific inaccuracies, so for their 2009 album Here Comes Science, TMBG composed a corrected version, "Why Does The Sun Really Shine?" replacing the opening line with "The sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma." If they were geeks for recording the original in the first place, they're geeks-squared for setting the scientific record straight.
4. "Boss of Me" (Dial-a-Song). Like the most joyous tantrum ever recorded, the thrashy theme song of "Malcolm in the Middle" conveys and transcends the confusion of childhood. Plus, the single won the band their first Grammy Award, for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media, in 2002.
5. "No!" (No!) In that same year TMBG released their first album of children's music, and the bouncy title track could be a younger-skewing companion piece to "Boss of Me," capturing the inflexibility of grown-up restrictions for a youngster's perspective. It also gives parents a musical weapon to use against their rebellious offspring: "No is no, no is always no, if they say no it means a thousand times no..."
6. "The House at the Top of the Tree" (No!). TMBG's take on the "cumulative song" format yields predictably surreal results involving malicious mice, a heroic dog and the inexplicable tree-top domicile of the title.
7. "Seven" (Here Come The 123s). Some of the songs on the band's education-themed albums are packed with information, a la "Schoolhouse Rock," but many simply offer inspired lunacy, like this tale of a horde of numeral sevens that arrive at the singer's house, demanding cake. The snaky horn section gives it a mock-sinister quality.
8. "I C U" (Here Come The ABCs). The lyrics of this country-western flavored tune initially seem to be only random letters, until you realize that you can pronounce them as words. The title's "I C U" equals "I see you," and so on. A song to appeal to anyone who likes crossword puzzles and other word games. Incidentally, Here Come The ABCs was the band's second gold album after Flood.
9. "The Bloodmobile" (Here Comes Science). If you enjoy the band but question whether you'll embrace their children's material, Here Comes Science may be the best starting point, with richer and more musically complex melodies and arrangements. "The Bloodmobile" stands out by presenting such an accessible metaphor for the circulatory system and its relationship with the body's other functions. Other highlights include the delicate "Electric Car," the toe-tapping "Roy G. Biv" (about the color spectrum) and unabashed pride of "Science is Real."
10. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett (in Outer Space)" (Here Comes Science). The theme of the Disney's vintage "Davy Crockett" TV show inspired this fanciful, sci-fi cover version for the 2008 children's compilation Disney Music Block Party, which also turns up on Here Comes Science. The song never explicitly ties "King of the wild frontier" with "The final frontier," but adds some tall-tale goofiness to the concept of space exploration. It's all you can do to keep from singing along.
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