Flood (They Might Be Giants album)
Cover artwork for the CD release
|Studio album by They Might Be Giants|
|Released||January 15, 1990|
|Recorded||1989NYC, Skyline Studios,|
|Producer||They Might Be Giants
|They Might Be Giants chronology|
Cover of the vinyl LP
Flood is the third studio album by Brooklyn-based alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants, released in January 1990. Flood was the duo's first album on the major label Elektra Records. It generated three singles: "Birdhouse in Your Soul", "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", and the domestic promotional track "Twisting". The album is generally considered to be the band's definitive release, as it is their best-selling and most recognizable album. Despite minimal stylistic and instrumental differences from previous releases, Flood is distinguished by contributions from seasoned producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. John Linnell and John Flansburgh also took advantage of new equipment and recording techniques, including unconventional, home-recorded samples, which were programmed through Casio FZ-1 synthesizers.
Promotion for Flood included television appearances, promotional videos, and an international tour. The album's mainstream promotion and success contributed to its status as the band's most well known album. Many fans, including many young listeners exposed to the album through Tiny Toon Adventures, were first exposed to They Might Be Giants's music through Flood.
The album was initially issued on CD, LP, and cassette. Upon its release, Flood was met with praise from critics and achieved moderate success on sales charts. In 2013, the album was reissued as part of a CD series spanning TMBG's four Elektra releases. It has been reissued on LP in Europe by Music On Vinyl; a United States reissue is expected from Asbestos Records.
Flood was They Might Be Giants' first release on any major label. Elektra Records approached the band following the unexpected success of their second album, Lincoln, which was released on the independent Bar/None label. The record deal that Elektra presented was largely due to the work of Susan Drew, an A&R worker who had been following the band since 1986. Because of her confidence, the band was given an extensive level of creative control over their projects, in addition to the ability to take advantage of the label's strategies and resources. Although They Might Be Giants recorded the album as a duo, they were joined by many guest musicians on brass and string instruments. The band also enlisted Alan Bezozi to help program some of the drums for the album.
Recording and production
The album was recorded at Skyline Studios, not far from Pass Studios, where the band had recorded their previous albums. Alan Bezozi and John Flansburgh worked together to create atypical drum tracks, including one that samples the sound of Flansburgh's kitchen sink and refrigerator being struck with a drum stick. An Alesis SR-16 drum machine was used to program the drums.
Two-thirds of the album's budget was exhausted for the production of four songs: "Birdhouse in Your Soul", "Your Racist Friend", "We Want a Rock", and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)". These four tracks were produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.
Style and composition
Like many of They Might Be Giants' early releases, Flood features a range of stylistic eclecticism. The press release for the album notes the "rock rave-up 'Twisting'...the [country] inflected 'Lucky Ball & Chain'...the existential oom-pah of 'Particle Man'", and "tender night-light metaphor and melody" of the lead single, "Birdhouse in Your Soul". Jon Pareles wrote for The New York Times that the album "shrug[s] off most typecasting". He added that through releases like Flood, TMBG and a new wave of alternative musicians were gainsaying the standard practice of sticking to only one genre.
Regardless of the genre employed, They Might Be Giants are noted for unconventional lyrics, characterized by "bizarre" cleverness. Flood includes abundant examples of this style, manifested in unusual subject matter, unreliable narrators, and wordplay. However, John Linnell and Flansburgh took care to avoid using humor excessively, acknowledging the requirement that recorded music withstand repeated listens without losing value. Linnell has pointed out that in general, he writes melodies prior to writing lyrics. This creates the challenge of fitting the appropriate syllables and stresses into each line; often, demos were recorded with dummy lyrics to simplify the process. Linnell's melodies are often based around scales.
Chorus sample, including a shift from C major to E-flat major
|Problems playing this file? See media help.|
DX Ferris, with commentary from John Linnell and John Flansburgh, outlined each individual track from Flood in a retrospective article published in Rolling Stone. "Theme From Flood" acts as a tongue-in-cheek introduction to the album. The bombastic song is regarded by scholars Philip Sandifer and Alex Reed to be one of the first in a recurring trend of processional tunes composed by John Linnell. The "Theme" is followed by the album's lead single, "Birdhouse in Your Soul". Although the melody for "Birdhouse" was written years prior to the lyrics, the lyrics are considered to be among the band's most alluring. The narrative is given from the point of view of a child's nightlight. According to John Linnell, the song was almost "wrecked" when he attempted to underscore it with a more dramatic drum track. Producers Winstanley and Langer opposed this decision and the drum track was scrapped. Linnell speculates that had this not been the case, the entire album may have been different—and far less exceptional. Reed and Sandifer also note that the song makes an unanticipated jump from the key of C major to E-flat major, and then back to C major. This may be a product of the album's largely digital composition and production; they call the album in general "modular" in its movement between musical ideas. The track's later shifts to F-sharp major and A major lead to the division of the octave into equal intervals.
The third track and second single, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", is a cover of the Four Lads song, which was originally released in 1953. The Johns added "Istanbul" to their repertoire in the early 1980s in order to lengthen their live sets. From that point, it evolved from a folk-inspired cover to the baroque pop rendition that appears on Flood. A Casio FZ-1 synthesizer was used to perform the song in the studio. "Letterbox", which was also considered as a potential single from the album, was another track that had been in live setlists years prior to the release of the album.
The final single, "Twisting", was selected over another of Flansburgh's compositions, "Your Racist Friend", produced by Langer and Winstanley. "Twisting" is a much more ambiguous song than the politically charged "Your Racist Friend", which follows a fairly straightforward narrative. Flansburgh recalls a mishap while writing "Twisting", wherein Bezozi accidentally erased the entire drum track. Flansburgh then had to recreate the track from scratch.
Flood concludes with "Road Movie to Berlin", which was written by John Flansburgh in Germany in 1989. At that time, the Berlin Wall still stood. The song deals with the clash between absurdism and existentialism that the band encountered while touring Europe.
The photograph used for the cover of the album depicts a man rowing a boat made out of strung-together washbasins. The image was captured by Margaret Bourke-White, part of a series taken to document the Ohio River flood of 1937. The cover, which was designed by band member John Flansburgh with Elizabeth van Itallie, originally featured only the photo; however, an emblem including the band's name, inked by Flansburgh's former coworker Barbara Lipp, was later added. The emblem resembles the logo of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
In order to promote Flood, Elektra produced a promotional video featuring Linnell and Flansburgh facetiously extolling the album's merits. One sarcastic quip was that the album included nineteen songs, which made it inherently better than other albums with fewer tracks. The video also included a live performance of "Particle Man" and a sample of the lead single "Birdhouse in Your Soul". The band also produced a music video, directed by Adam Bernstein, for "Birdhouse in Your Soul". In April, the band appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to perform the song with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band. Severinsen's unusually fast count-off resulted in a quicker arrangement of the song, which Linnell and Flansburgh went on to use for subsequent live performances.
In support of Flood, TMBG toured North America and Europe, including a series of shows in Germany. Due to the scale of the tour, the band's road crew doubled in size — increasing from two members to four. Linnell and Flansburgh have recounted the unfamiliarity of touring outside of North America; in Europe, they report that crowds acted differently due to cultural gaps.
The band continued to tour as a duo, with Linnell playing accordion and Flansburgh on guitars, or occasionally playing a marching band bass drum, and with large posters of postage stamps adorning the stage as props. The minimal arrangement was received as a boldly simple choice, and sets included a combination of old and new material. As in the past, the band was backed by a tape deck playing drum tracks or a metronome in lieu of a rhythm section.
Flood received generally positive reviews, though some critics expressed reservations. In an Allmusic review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that despite some inconsistencies and awkward selections, the album is musically superior to its predecessors. He observed that through Flood, the Johns "exchange quirky artiness for unabashed geekiness". Six of the album's nineteen tracks are designated as Allmusic "picks". Chris Heim wrote for the Chicago Tribune that the album is a rare example of success for a "quirky cult band" signed to a major label. Steve Simels, writing for Stereo Review, compared the album's structural complexities to The Beach Boys at the peak of their career. Simels praised the album's originality and intellect, while heavily criticizing other contemporary music for lacking those characteristics. Writing in Spin, Ira Robbins called Flood "another captivating variety show of art-rock, swing, the Bonzo Dog Band, cow-pop, show tunes and the Schmenge Brothers... Boundless imagination, loopy mix-and-match arrangements and a gyroscopic sense of what makes a pop tune click are still responsible for the easy and abiding appeal of TMBG's ingenious material."
Reviews in the UK were also mostly positive. In a review for Q, Peter Kane lauded the record for its uniqueness and for the sheer quantity of tracks, which he said ensured that the listener would enjoy at least one song, and concluded that Flood was "as playful an entertainment as will be heard all year". In NME Jerry Smith called the collection "a weird and wonderful varied combination of the zany, trivial, witty and wacky, delivered with a spritely foot-tapping ease that belies their bizarre subject matter". Record Mirror's Iestyn George gave the album four stars out of five and observed that "if it's to be faulted, the album is a mite too cluttered for its own good, but the virtues of imagination and originality that these native New Yorkers display are worthy of enthusiastic approval". Andy Ross of Sounds believed that it was the duo's melodic talents that prevented them from becoming just a novelty act, and wrote that Flood was "a real cryptic crossword of an album, requiring perseverance and application with ultimately rewarding and fulfilling results".
Conversely, Robert Christgau and Rolling Stone's David Browne found Flood to be unremarkable overall. Both critics chastised the band's novelty, which they found to be wearing thin as time progressed. In the UK Caroline Sullivan of Melody Maker felt that enjoyment of Flood "hinges upon one's general feelings about similarly zany characters like Talking Heads and Frank Zappa. If their very American, very beatnik, surrealism spells instant yawnorama, forget TMBG – they're the same thing, but minus the good tunes." However, in a 2009 Rolling Stone article revisiting Flood near its twentieth anniversary, DX Ferris praised the album as both the band's most iconic release and one that revolutionized the college radio scene.
Flood peaked at number 75 on the Billboard 200, spending 22 weeks on the chart. The lead single from the album, "Birdhouse in Your Soul", reached number 3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. The single also charted in Ireland and the UK. "Twisting", which was released as a domestic promotional single, peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. The album also contains two of the band's most well known songs, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man". The former was released as a single, reaching number 61 on the UK Singles Chart, but failing to chart in the US.
Flood was the first TMBG album to receive the RIAA Platinum sales award — indicating sales over one million copies — which it achieved on July 10, 2009. It is also certified Gold by the BPI in the United Kingdom.
Flood is They Might Be Giants' best-selling album, and it is widely regarded as their most iconic. Due to the acclaim with which it was received, the album is considered to have cemented the band's reputation as a staple of alternative and college rock. Because of its popularity, They Might Be Giants has performed the album live in its entirety on numerous occasions, including during their 2010 US tour and their 2013 tour of Australia. Often, the band will play the album's tracks in the reverse order of the track listing, starting with "Road Movie to Berlin" and ending with "Theme from Flood". Curtis Silver, in a retrospective for Wired, collected anecdotes from TMBG fans, many of whom were first exposed to the band through Flood. Silver concluded that new fans are drawn just as much to the band's old material as they are their more recent work, due to its sustaining accessibility. In fact, many fans cite the band's earliest albums as their favorites — though often not Flood, despite (or perhaps due to) its longstanding mainstream success.
In 1990, Tiny Toon Adventures aired animated music videos for two tracks from the album, "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)". Through the popular program, the band was exposed to a younger set of fans. This ultimately led the band to begin releasing children's music alongside their "rock albums" over a decade later.
All songs written and composed by They Might Be Giants, except where noted.
|1.||"Theme From Flood"||0:28|
|2.||"Birdhouse in Your Soul"||3:20|
|3.||"Lucky Ball & Chain"||2:46|
|4.||"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" (Jimmy Kennedy, Nat Simon)||2:38|
|6.||"Your Racist Friend"||2:54|
|9.||"We Want a Rock"||2:47|
|10.||"Someone Keeps Moving My Chair"||2:23|
|14.||"Whistling in the Dark"||3:25|
|16.||"Women & Men"||1:46|
|17.||"Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love"||1:36|
|18.||"They Might Be Giants"||2:46|
|19.||"Road Movie To Berlin"||2:22|
They Might Be Giants:
|UK Albums (OCC)||14|
|US Billboard 200||75|
|1990||"Birdhouse in Your Soul"||Billboard Modern Rock Tracks||3|
|UK Singles Chart (OCC)||6|
|Irish Singles Chart (IRMA)||12|
|"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)"||UK Singles Chart (OCC)||61|
|"Twisting"||Billboard Modern Rock Tracks||22|
Certifications & sales
|United States (RIAA)||Platinum||1,000,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||100,000^|
^shipments figures based on certification alone
Flood was released in CD, LP, and cassette formats both in the United States and foreign markets by Elektra Records. In addition to two vinyl reissues in 2014, the entire album was included in a two-part 2013 CD compilation that collected They Might Be Giants's work from their period with Elektra.
|United States||January 15, 1990||Elektra Records||LP||60907-1|
|Europe||1990||WEA / Elektra Records||LP||960 907-1|
|Japan||April 25, 1990||Warner Brothers Records / Elektra Records||CD||WPCP-3435|
|Philippines||WEA / Elektra Records||Cassette||60907-4|
|European reissue||October 13, 2014||Music On Vinyl||LP (180g)||MOVLP1239|
|United States and Canadian reissue||November 28, 2014||Asbestos Records||LP||ASB100|
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- The album's European release date was sometime between February and March 5, 1990; the exact date is unclear.