State Songs (Zoe/Rounder 01143-1005)
I've done a whole lot of trumpeting for this album in the last several years, as I watched They Might Be Giants' painful descent into (gasp) averageness and it seemed like no new avenue for the band could resuscitate them. "John Linnell solo album!" I would chant, raising my fist high into the air at town meetings and Oprah book club meetings at local bookstores. Clearly a John Linnell solo album would solve the mystery as to whose fault it was that TMBG had become so stale, and John Flansburgh would finally be held up to the light, and forced to take a job tending bar.
I'm starting to feel a little bad about my constant disrespect to John Flansburgh, but after listening to State Songs, I am not unconvinced that his best move wouldn't be to just open his own rock club and get away from songwriting for awhile. Flans has had a ton of great moments in TMBG, but Linnell's star has always shone a bit brighter. And while the new record sidesteps the issue of whether Linnell could make a great proper "solo album," it's still a wonderful bit of refreshment after the recent string of disappointing material by TMBG.
Strangely, after declaring for years that all I wanted was a John Linnell solo record, when it finally came out, I almost didn't even buy it. Was it too late for me to salvage my admiration of Linnell as one of pop's most subversive and brilliant songwriters? I stared at its plain cover art and inventoried my ambivalence quotient for several moments before deciding I owed it to myself to try it out. I'm pleased to say it's quite good, and in fact gets a lot better with repeat listens. It's not a TMBG record (at this point, not a bad thing), though it's got the expected air of goofiness and oddball content. Longtime fans knew Linnell was working on writing songs for each of the 50 states (he'd released a couple teasers years ago through the now-defunct Hello Recording Club, some of which appear on this album).
"South Carolina" is probably my favorite of all Linnell songs the version here is the same as on the original State Songs Hello EP, as is "Maine," another standout pop song. New treasures include the theme song "The Songs of the 50 States," "Montana," the funky "Iowa," and the seafarin' ballad "Arkansas," which, incidentally, entails a ship being built in the exact dimensions of Arkansas, on a scale of 1:1, which of course sinks, and you get to hear a chorus sung by the boat itself. Quite an impressive work of songcraft, that one. The sarcasm factor is pretty high throughout, although the out-there factor is even higher ("It seemed to me Montana was a leg now I get it" or "We must eat Michigan's brain"). A couple instrumentals in the classic annoying-but-charming Linnell style, lots of accordions, horns, guitars, and a Wurlitzer carousel organ featured on several cuts (which had to have paper rolls cut for it to play the music automatically).
It's not the kind of album you can really put on in the background, but then that would be futile anyway, 'cause you'd be missing the adventures of itchy New Hampshire man, and how Maine, the hell from above, has crushed John's evil heart. It's a great album, just like the next TMBG release won't be, but the important thing is, it's a great album. Even more amusing is imagining someone buying it thinking it's actual state songs, only to hear the likes of "Oregon is bad/Stop it if you can." Highly entertaining, though non-nerds are warned it may warp your sense of place in the world. Those fearing changes in musical taste might want to step a few feet to the left and pick up Led Zeppelin instead.
Review by Ten Ton Thompson