They Might Be Giants: Venue Songs (Idlewild)

There’s actually a strange little storyline behind this DVD collection, one involving a deranged millionaire out to sabotage TMBG’s career. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just call this plot an excuse for the duo to get exceedingly goofy with its songwriting.

 

 

There are always those songwriters who feel compelled to craft a new symphony to God with each album they produce. They’ll burrow deep into some remote studio (most likely built inside of a haunted church) and spend years trying to get the levels on that orchestral bridge just right. Thank Buddha there are only a select few such sonic obsessives in the music industry. Counteracting their numbingly pretentious ambitions are more unassuming acts like They Might Be Giants, bands who constantly churn out material to satiate the rabid appetites of their cultish fan base.

Sure, they produce just as many botched experiments as they do sublime pop moments, but prolific songwriters like the Johns Linnell and Flansburgh can’t afford to get hung up on one project. Like intrepid Arctic explorers, they must keep moving from challenge to challenge, lest creative stagnation freeze them to death. The duo’s latest self-imposed task: write at a song-per-day clip over a month-long world tour, with each tune corresponding to a locale on the itinerary. They call it Venue Songs. You’ll probably call it “a novelty gift for my creepy friend who listens to the TMBG podcast religiously.”

There’s actually a strange little storyline behind this DVD collection, one involving a deranged millionaire out to sabotage TMBG’s career. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just call this plot an excuse for the duo to get exceedingly goofy with its songwriting. Out of the woodwork come all of the old genre experiments and stock chord progressions that they’ve kept tucked away for all these years. It makes for an uneven collection of half-baked song fragments. I could lick TMBG’s boots and say that their famed wit manages to make these jingles more compelling than they actually should be, but unfortunately, that’s only the case about half the time.

The DVD portion of the Venue Songs package features animated videos for some of the stronger material, supplemented by clever interludes featuring the Deranged Millionaire himself. Though clearly produced on the cheap, these shorts help to complete songs that feel average on their own. The “Los Angeles” video, for example, effectively skewers trendy acts such as the Strokes and their copycat legions. Elsewhere, Linnell’s tribute to Asheville, N.C.’s Orange Peel turns into a harrowing tale of romantic betrayal between fruit, and its video helps to fill in those pesky blanks that the pair so often leaves between its lyrics. The major-to-minor chord shifts on “Albany” and the mindless “garage!” chants on “Glasgow” are also surprisingly strong, despite their inherent simplicity.

The accompanying audio CD collects all of the other Venue Songs sans whimsical animated videos. Left to sink or swim on their own merits, a few of these unfortunate numbers plummet straight into the “curio” bin. These victims of rushed songwriting include the neo-disco abomination of “Omaha” and the directionless trainwreck that is “Santa Cruz.” Other compositions prove to be disturbingly banal, salvaged from complete mediocrity only by a few clever lyrical twists. Even the normally manic Linnell sounds bored with “Charleston,” but his lines about the government “paying subsidies” to hardworking “music farmers” makes the song a worthwhile venture. As luck would have it, our beloved St. Louis receives one of the sweeter melodies on the collection, as Flansburgh namedrops all of the Gateway City’s top concert venues while paying homage to his (alleged) favorite, Mississippi Nights.

Really, though, anyone who grasps the circumstances behind these recordings shouldn’t come in expecting anything transcendental. It’s a package clearly meant for the most fanatical followers of the duo, especially since basically all of the videos featured on the DVD are currently available in their entirety on www.tmbg.com. More than anything, Venue Songs appears to be a stopgap between the band’s recent ABC adventure and whatever conceptual masterwork they’ve currently got cooking. How about a song for each amendment to the U.S. Constitution? I, for one, think that “Unreasonable Search & Seizure” has “hit single” written all over it.

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