They Might Be Giants Direct From Brooklyn (1999)
Had it been issued at the height of TMBG's cult stardom, the collection would have been more dear to our hearts, but the late 90s saw such a decline in the quality of the band's work (as well as a complete standstill on their video production) that Direct From Brooklyn felt much more like a eulogy than a love letter.
Since then, Giants have seen a curious ascendence in the mainstream thanks to success with the "Malcolm in the Middle Theme," a celebrated children's record, and the rather creepy (though appropriate) support of NPR, who consistently hail them as unsung geniuses.
It's hard to begrudge these guys their success, but TMBG fans have watched this more recent success with a jaded eye. After all, they are being celebrated for all the wrong reasons. They don't make good music anymore. Instead, they are heralded almost purely on a conceptual level, like when some comedy awards show trots out Richard Pryor to evoke everyone's collective idea of how influential and important the guy is. There's a strong sense of "Okay, but what have you done for me lately?"
So the DVD reissue of Direct From Brooklyn is even more anticlimactic than its original VHS release. I had to get it, but as I plunked down my cash, it was clear to me that this was one of those purchases made out of obligation rather than inspiration, like buying StreetWise magazine or Girl Scout® cookies.
Which is not to say the content of the collection isn't a whole lot of fun to watch. It's just that the thrill is gone. My enthusiasm for TMBG, once incredibly passionate, is now simply nostalgic.
The disc contains all of Giants' videos, plus a few bonuses tacked on for relevance in the DVD era. The videos form a wonderful documentation of the two Johns, who they were, why they mattered, and what they have become.
The shoestring budgets of the early videos (like "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" and "Don't Let's Start") reflect a real sense of innocence, when it was still "about the music" and the Johns were having a good time with it. "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" gives the Johns a humorous cartoon treatment.
The videos from Lincoln see a moderately increased budget, with a slightly more professional and serious tone that reflects the mood of that record. It's TMBG's best era, the path they ought to have pursued further (as hindsight has demonstrated their increasingly silly irrelevance). "Ana Ng" has always been one of my all-time favorite videos, and it still holds up great. The establishment of their trademark odd "dance" movements starts up in earnest here, as well as the appearance of many telephones, another object seen in several of the videos.
"They'll Need A Crane" is a location piece, filmed in a park and featuring a trio of elderly gents assuming the roles of back-up musicians. Very subtle, and totally brilliant. The video for "Purple Toupee" is pretty weak.
When we get to Flood, the shift to a major label is readily apparent, evidenced most obviously by the "Birdhouse" video, by far the most extravagant and lavish they had done up to that point. In it, Linnell has changed little except his hair, while Flansburgh is clearly reveling in the big-budget extravagance surrounding him. Myriad extras roam around, the props are plentiful, and the visuals are tremendously appealing. "Istanbul" is another animated video, using straight animation as well as stop-motion. Pretty good stuff.
The Apollo 18 videos are so-so, with "The Statue Got Me High" employing the outer space theme of the album, while "The Guitar" coming off more like a love letter from Flansburgh to himself. As usual, I imagine the conversation that resulted in "The Guitar" being picked as a single going thusly:
John F: We need to do another video.
John L: We could do "I Palindrome I," that's clearly the next single.
John F: We always do videos for YOUR songs. The record company says we only can do two videos. We're going to do one for "The Guitar."
John L: But "I Palindrome I" is a much better song, John.
*John F smacks John L viciously across the face; John L crumples to the ground*
John F: I SAID we're going to do one for "The Guitar," you little bitch!
Ah, the deluded notions of a once-too-deep TMBG fan. Actually, "The Guitar" is a pretty entertaining video, buoyed by the delightful appearance of comely Laura Cantrell (who sings the chorus).
"Snail Shell," from John Henry, is set inside a 1950s-looking TV station with lots of older guys manning the controls, while the band performs. It's a little sour in tone, seeming like a failed attempt to connect with MTV's "Alternative Nation."
Tellingly, no videos were released from the abysmal Factory Showroom, but there is one for "Doctor Worm" off the equally abysmal Severe Tire Damage. This one is classic dancing-'n'-hopping TMBG, entertaining though by now fully caricatures of themselves.
Brooklyn also has a couple of videos from "Tiny Toons," the most childlike possible ones, "Particle Man" and "Istanbul." Depending on your affinity for Plucky Duck, Hamilton Pig, and friends, you may like these. The DVD also adds a badly shot live video for "Why Does the Sun Shine?" and a few uninteresting Quicktime mini-movies made by Linnell.
Though the content of the disc is rooted in nostalgia for me, the commentary track was really nice to hear, offering some fresh, contemporary thoughts on the videos by John & John. They travel down memory lane, recalling odd bits of trivia and impressions from making each one. They sound relaxed and neither overly proud nor mortified by their legacy.
Ultimately, it was watching the videos with their present-day remarks that broke me out of my rather needy anger toward their degeneration and helped me make peace with being a Giants fan. I suppose I never thought the day would come when I would be old enough for one of my former favorite bands to not be current, but like a lot of not-great books I naïvely loved in college, Direct From Brooklyn remains a necessary document to have on the shelf, to remind me of the days when I could latch on to such pop-culture periphery as TMBG, with the fervor of an apostle. Nowadays I can barely muster the rah-rah to care about a damn thing once the dishes are done, the dog walked, and the baby's ass wiped clean.
Review by La Fée & Mario Speedwagon