Blast From The Past: Before there were junk stores, before there was junk, he lived with his mother and John Henry by They Might Be Giants

Whoa, is it Wednesday??? Remember last week when I said I wasn’t going to let the day take me by surprise? Well, I lied. Now, here at last, is this week’s Blast From The Past, where I assess albums that have acquired the appellation “antique.” Last week I heaped hogsheads of hurrahs on Hefner’s 1999 gem “The Fidelity Wars.” This week we turn back the dial a tiny bit to the year 1994. Like 1997 after it, 1994 was a great year for music. Think about it: Weezer’s blue album, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and The Divine Comedy’s Promenade all saw release in 1994. Yet those weren’t the only monumental things to happen to music in 1994, because it was with John Henry that college-rock crown princes They Might Be Giants ditched their drum machines in favor of a full backing band.

Evidently, the kids in the liner notes were none too happy about this change. They hold banners that declare “death to” or “down with They Might Be Giants,” and toss around a human skull on whose forehead is written “THEY.” It eerily foreshadowed the mixed critical and fan reactions the album received upon initial release, though over the years it has grown on many a fan (Our dear webmaster Tsuru included, if I recall!) But what was the reason for the lukewarm reception? The triumph of drum man over drum machine to which the album’s title alludes? Couldn’t be. The full band only serves to enhance the wonderful sounds of “Snail Shell,” put the pedal to the metal in “AKA Driver,” and make “The End Of The Tour” sound like it could fill a stadium.

Was it the lyrics? Can anyone deny that “Sleeping In The Flowers” shows that John Flansburgh has an incredible knack for writing love songs for nerds? Or that “Spy” deftly turns its suave narrator into a hopeless romantic when he realizes that “you will never understand me / because I have a special job?” Or that the faux-spiritual “O Do Not Forsake Me” is at once a humble homage and clever lampoon?

You know what it was? This album had to follow Apollo 18, which for my money is one of the best albums of the 1990s. I can imagine that the public, after the perfection of that album and after hearing the news that the Johns were recording with a full band, would expect nothing short of a masterpiece. John Henry is by no means a masterpiece, and it contains its share of less-than-perfect tunes such as the lyrical mess of “A Self Called Nowhere” or the just not very interesting “Extra Savoir Faire,” or the throwaway “Window.” Whether or not this was a result of the pressure to make another Apollo 18 I do not know. Either way, I find that though John Henry is far from perfect, the glaring imperfections are what make it so engaging.

My friend “Francis,” to whom I introduced you last week, has a fascination with “flawed albums.” Mostly, these consist of debut albums that are just simply not as good as their other works. These guys know what I’m talking about:

Radiohead: Oxford's Rowdiest New Band

While not their debut, John Henry marked a debut of sorts: that of the three guys backing the Johns, and like Pablo Honey was for Radiohead, this is a beautifully flawed debut. After all, They Might Be Giants, but they’re only human.

John Henry:

01. Subliminal
02. Snail Shell
03. Sleeping In The Flowers
04. Unrelated Thing
05. AKA Driver
06. I Should Be Allowed To Think
07. Extra Savoir-Faire
08. Why Must I Be Sad?
09. Spy
10. O, Do Not Forsake Me
11. No One Knows My Plan
12. Dirt Bike
13. Destination Moon
14. A Self Called Nowhere
15. Meet James Ensor
16. Thermostat
17. Window
18. Out Of Jail
19. Stomp Box
20. The End Of The Tour

Blast From The Past will return to its regular schedule next Tuesday. I hope.

1 comment for “Blast From The Past: Before there were junk stores, before there was junk, he lived with his mother and John Henry by They Might Be Giants

  1. August 12, 2010 at 10:28 PM

    I loved/love/will always love this album……………… wonderful write up Wasoe!

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