Apollo 18 (album)
|Studio album by|
|Released||March 24, 1992|
|Recorded||September 1991—January 1992|
|Studio||The Magic Shop, NYC|
|Genre||Alternative rock, indie rock, funk rock|
|Producer||They Might Be Giants|
|They Might Be Giants chronology|
Apollo 18 is the fourth studio album by American alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants. It was released in 1992 through Elektra Records and was named after the cancelled Apollo 18 mission that was scheduled to have followed Apollo 17. The album was also associated with International Space Year, for which They Might Be Giants were declared the official "musical ambassadors" by NASA.
The album marked the first conscious effort by John Linnell and John Flansburgh to branch out of their early sound, opting for more traditional rock rhythms and fuller arrangements. The duo adopted a backing band with live drums during the supporting tour. It was their last album recorded as a duo, and the band expanded to include a regular rhythm guitarist, bass player and saxophone player for their subsequent releases. Apollo 18 also includes the "Fingertips" suite, a series of twenty-one short songs, most under thirty seconds long. The album generated three singles, "The Statue Got Me High", "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" and "I Palindrome I", although only the first charted.
The album received mostly positive reviews from music critics, with many commending the band for making music with a darker tone. However, the album was criticized for lacking a standout lead single. Commercially, the album was not as successful as Flood (1990), peaking at number 99 on the Billboard 200 and spending only six weeks on that chart. In addition, some fans were upset that Flansburgh and Linnell opted to use a backing band for the album's tour, with some even boycotting shows.
Recording and production
After the major success of Flood (1990), Elektra sought out Elvis Costello to produce Apollo 18; however, John Linnell and John Flansburgh elected to produce the album themselves as they had originally planned. Prior to recording, the band upgraded many of their instruments; Flansburgh purchased a Marshall amp and Linnell bought several new saxophones. The album was recorded at The Magic Shop in New York City in approximately ten weeks. Although the band recorded Apollo 18 primarily as a duo, its production is musically sparser than that of previous releases. The album's associated tour, the Don't Tread on the Cut-Up Snake World Tour 1992, was the band's first to utilize a live backing band, rather than a tape deck playing backing tracks. Linnell later noted that this led to much more complicated and deliberate rehearsals.
Style and composition
The music found on Apollo 18 is slightly darker in tone and mood than the songs found on Flood. When it came to writing songs for the album, Linnell and Flansburgh used "old standbys", such as producing harmonies through improvisation and generating melodies by sampling sounds in varying cycles. However, according to the album's press release, Flansburgh and Linnell both sought to expand their horizons and incorporate new sounds and "extreme song arrangements".
The album's opening track, "Dig My Grave", has been described by Parry Gettelman of the Orlando Sentinel as "an angry, fuzzed-out rocker". The vocals for the track were recorded through a guitar fuzz box in order to distort them. The circular "I Palindrome I" features a word-by-word palindrome in one of its verses: "'Son, I am able', she said, 'though you scare me.' 'Watch', said I. 'Beloved", I said, 'watch me scare you, though.' Said she, 'Able am I, son.'" "She's Actual Size" was written by Flansburgh after he contemplated the imagery of someone viewing a departing person in a mirror; he felt that the symbolism was a "really succinct way of talking about leaving somebody behind". The band later expressed disappointment with the "definitive" version featured on this album, largely because the song continued to develop as the band played it live. Flansburgh called the album version "timid" and noted that "later performance versions of [the song] have so much more spirit than the recorded version." Although Linnell and Flansburgh usually write songs individually, "My Evil Twin" was an example of the two collaborating. Linnell wrote the musical structure of the song, rendering it as a MIDI file, and Flansburgh then wrote the melody and the lyrics. "Mammal" discusses various members of the titular vertebrate class, and, according to Linnell, poetically explores the fact that "all mammals have hair at some stage in their development". In an interview with Wired magazine, Linnell revealed that most of the scientific information in the song was gathered from an encyclopedia.
The first single released from the album was "The Statue Got Me High". The titular lyrics originally started out with the line "The apple of my eye...". but Linnell soon conceived the line that would become the title, and he was amused at the juxtaposition of a statue—something "utterly immobile and … in the past"—completely "blowing somebody's mind". "Spider" is an eclectic song that was made when Flansburgh and Linnell were experimenting with a sampler. Linnell provided almost all of the voices, save for the line "must stop!", which was spoken by Flansburgh. Flansburgh himself was responsible for the bongos, horns and various sound effects. The second single, "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)", was spawned from a jam session of the Tokens song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". The song was also originally intended to simply be titled "The Guitar". Because of the legal ramifications of including the "Lion Sleeps Tonight" motif, Elektra required the band to add the name of the original song to the title. The song features Laura Cantrell on the chorus. "Dinner Bell" references Ivan Pavlov, and his experimentation in classical conditioning by using a dinner bell to cause his dog to salivate. According to Rolling Stone, "Narrow Your Eyes" is a "touching breakup song that pays vocal tribute to The Beatles and The Four Seasons". Spin magazine called the song "the most direct lyrically and simplest musically." The first line of "See the Constellation"—described by Rolling Stone as "a psychedelic/New Wave potion"—references railroad tracks and was inspired by a promotional photo of an Elektra recording artist who was resting on tracks. Flansburgh was struck by the "contrary elements of the image", and he wondered, "How relaxing can that kind of rest be unless you’ve given up on everything else?"
"Fingertips" is a series of 21 short tracks ranging in duration from four to 71 seconds, totaling 4:35. Referring to these tracks, the album's liner notes include the message "the indexing of this disc is designed to complement the Shuffle Mode of modern CD players". According to John Flansburgh, listening to the album on shuffle made a collage of songs, with the short fingertips interspersed among tracks of regular length. Arnold Aronson argued that this element made the album "a stunning declaration of post-modernism" because of its heavy use of "rupture, dissociation, and pastiche". The songs were written to resemble short fragments of pop songs. The format was inspired by advertisements for collections of music, which only included samples of choruses. The "Fingertips" suite features vocal cameos from Peter Stampfel, who founded The Holy Modal Rounders, and Brian Dewan, who crafted the shrine that appeared on They Might Be Giants' 1988 album Lincoln. Because of a mastering error, the European and Australian issues of the CD include "Fingertips" as one continuous track, though on the US edition it is correctly split into 21 tracks. (This concept of including extremely short songs on an album was later somewhat recycled for the band's 16th album, Nanobots, which contains twenty-five songs, nine of which run under one minute each.) The album concludes with "Space Suit", a jazz-influenced song with synthesizer elements. The song had been written to make use of chords that Flansburgh had learned under the tutelage of Jack DeSalvo. The song originally was titled "I'll Remember 3rd Street", a nod to its "jazzy origins", but once the keyboard elements were added, the band decided to give it a name that was more "spacey".
Title and packaging
The title of the album references NASA's aborted Apollo 18 mission, originally planned to land in the moon's Schroter's Valley in February 1972. The album's cover depicts a giant squid locked in combat with a sperm whale in space, using graphics that the Johns came across while searching the NASA Archive Center for images to use in media art surrounding the album. The Dial-A-Song phone number is misprinted as 718-963-6962 on the back of the album, a number that would instead dial a warehouse. The album liner notes and artwork for the album's singles include a number of photographs from NASA, and the packaging was designed by John Flansburgh, under the pseudonym "Rolf Conant", with Barbara Lipp.
Between 1992 and 1993, Bo Orloff, the band's assistant manager, sent out various informational updates via email to the band's mailing list. These included a full track listing prior to the album's release, as well as a press release and biography of the band. The bulletins also included information on the album's associated tour.
The band appeared as a musical guest on numerous talk shows to promote Apollo 18. "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" and "The Statue Got Me High" were performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and "I Palindrome I" on Late Night with David Letterman. Their appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on 19 May 1992 was the television debut of They Might Be Giants' new backing band.
International Space Year
The band became associated with the International Space Year (ISY), designated as 1992 by the United Nations to promote peaceful and collaborative space exploration, when Linnell and Flansburgh were searching the NASA Archive Center for appropriate photographs and visual materials for the album artwork. Staff members at the NASA facility took notice of the duo and inquired about their research. Linnell responded that they "were in this band, we're making this record, and we're going to start touring next year...They were particularly interested in that, because they said that 1992 was ISY. It was the first time we ever heard of that, but they said because we were a band going to be touring around the world in 1992 they wondered if we wanted to be spokesband for the ISY. So we said why not?"
The band was soon declared the official "musical ambassadors" for the year, although, according to Linnell, it was more of an informal arrangement. The band had originally planned to create short videos called "Space Minutes", which would have aired on an unspecified cable television station that was affiliated with ISY, but the plans never came to fruition. In support of the designation, the ISY logo was included on the back cover of the album. The band was scheduled for concerts to endorse ISY, and mentioned in promotional material from NASA, which headed the celebration in the United States. Commenting on the success of the designation of International Space Year, however, Linnell pointed out that he "[didn't] think most people have heard that this is International Space Year".
Don't Tread on the Cut-Up Snake World Tour
In support of Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants embarked on a tour across the United States, Europe and Asia. The tour was named the "Don't Tread on the Cut-Up Snake World Tour 1992", a reference to the Gadsden flag and the "Join, or Die" cartoon, with the "world tour" affix appended by Elektra Records. The band's largest tour up to that point, spanning the length of 1992, the Don't Tread on the Cut-Up Snake tour was also associated with ISY. Although they were initially hesitant about using live backing musicians, it was also the first tour for which Linnell and Flansburgh were joined by a live band, consisting of a rhythm section and saxophonist. They were encouraged to adopt the larger touring outfit by their Elektra A&R representative, Susan Drew. The band also expanded to include a regular rhythm guitarist, bass player and saxophone player for their subsequent studio recordings.
A short video promoting Apollo 18 was produced by Elektra Records, in the vein of the previous Flood promo. In the video, graphic and video illustrations of certain songs are presented, in addition to samples of some of the songs. The video is arranged to resemble a traditional slide show presentation. The video also introduced the concept of the three "Power Spheres", from which the compilation album A User's Guide to They Might Be Giants: Melody, Fidelity, Quantity (2005) would take its subtitle.
|The Village Voice||A−|
Apollo 18 garnered positive reviews from critics. Writing for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave the album 4 out of 5 stars and stated that it was more "consistent" than predecessors, making note of its darker tone. However, Erlewine also felt that the album was "lacking a standout single". Robert Christgau, who assigned the album an A–, praised the first five tracks especially, asserting that the remaining 33 were more experimental in nature. Christgau acclaimed the album's melodic attributes while stating that the lyrics were pleasant but "meaningless". Ira Robbins, reviewing for Rolling Stone, gave Apollo 18 4 out of 5 stars. Similar to Christgau, Robbins called the lyrics "whimsy" and said that they were not too complex to weigh down melodies. Robbins also praised the album's eclecticism, observing that "'Turn Around' mimics Forties swing; the funky bass groove of 'The Guitar' interpolates a rewrite of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', fetchingly sung by Laura Cantrell. Another wry science lesson, 'See the Constellation', mixes a psychedelic/New Wave potion for a bouncy space trip." Robbins was critical of the disorganized "Fingertips" selections. A review by Craig Tomashoff, published in People, lauded the variety found in "Fingertips". Tomashoff also made note of the wide vocabulary employed in the lyrics (citing, specifically, "Turn Around" and "I Palindrome I"), concluding that the album was "totally cool".
On April 11, 1992, Apollo 18 peaked at number 99 on the Billboard 200. It spent six weeks on that chart. "The Statue Got Me High", the first single from the album, peaked at number 24 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart on March 21, 1992, and spent eight weeks on the chart. The album's other singles failed to chart.
Although Apollo 18 received a positive response from consumers and critics, some fans were upset that the duo of Linnell and Flansburgh had been augmented to include a full band for the album's tour. In rebuttal, some fans stopped attending live concerts, even taking the aggressive approach of trying to discourage others from entering venues for shows. Despite these reactions, the live band was generally well received. In a New York Times review of a contemporaneous live show, Jon Pareles observed that the band was "just as tricky as ever", and still delighted its audience. They Might Be Giants continues to record and tour with a full backing band.
All tracks are written by They Might Be Giants, except where noted.
|1.||"Dig My Grave"||1:08|
|2.||"I Palindrome I"||2:25|
|3.||"She's Actual Size"||2:05|
|4.||"My Evil Twin"||2:37|
|6.||"The Statue Got Me High"||3:06|
|8.||"The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" (They Might Be Giants, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss)||3:49|
|10.||"Narrow Your Eyes"||2:46|
|11.||"Hall of Heads"||2:53|
|12.||"Which Describes How You're Feeling"||1:13|
|13.||"See the Constellation"||3:27|
|14.||"If I Wasn't Shy"||1:43|
|16.||"Hypnotist of Ladies"||1:42|
|17.||"Fingertips 1: Everything's Catching On Fire"||0:12|
|18.||"Fingertips 2: Fingertips"||0:06|
|19.||"Fingertips 3: I Hear The Wind Blow"||0:10|
|20.||"Fingertips 4: Hey Now Everybody Now"||0:05|
|21.||"Fingertips 5: Who's That Standing Out My Window?"||0:06|
|22.||"Fingertips 6: I Found A New Friend"||0:07|
|23.||"Fingertips 7: Come On And Wreck My Car"||0:12|
|24.||"Fingertips 8: Aren't You The Guy Who Hit Me In The Eye?"||0:07|
|25.||"Fingertips 9: Please Pass the Milk, Please"||0:08|
|26.||"Fingertips 10: Leave Me Alone"||0:05|
|27.||"Fingertips 11: Who's Knocking On The Wall?"||0:04|
|28.||"Fingertips 12: All Alone"||0:05|
|29.||"Fingertips 13: What's That Blue Thing Doing Here?"||0:08|
|30.||"Fingertips 14: Something Grabbed Ahold Of My Hand"||0:12|
|31.||"Fingertips 15: I Don't Understand You"||0:27|
|32.||"Fingertips 16: I Heard A Sound"||0:04|
|33.||"Fingertips 17: Mysterious Whisper"||0:28|
|34.||"Fingertips 18: The Day That Love Came To Play"||0:08|
|35.||"Fingertips 19: I'm Having A Heart Attack"||0:22|
|36.||"Fingertips 20: Fingertips" (reprise)||0:10|
|37.||"Fingertips 21: I Walk Along Darkened Corridors"||1:01|
Tracks 17 to 37 are listed as a single entry (track 17), "Fingertips"; however, "Space Suit" is given as track 38 on the CD track listing. The titles for "Fingertips" given above are taken from the first lines provided in the liner notes.
|Australian Albums (ARIA)||59|
|US Billboard 200||99|
|1992||"The Statue Got Me High"||Billboard Modern Rock Tracks||24|
Apollo 18 was released on CD and cassette in the United States, Australia, and Canada and on CD, LP and cassette formats in European markets by Elektra Records. In 2013, a two-part CD compilation collected Apollo 18 and some contemporary B-sides along with the band's other Elektra studio albums and surrounding material. The album was also released on LP in the United States and Canada by Asbestos Records in 2014 as part of a series of LP reissues spanning They Might Be Giants' period on the Elektra label.
|Europe||March 20, 1992||WEA / Elektra Records||LP||7559-61257-1|
|United States||March 24, 1992||Elektra Records||CD||61257-2|
|Japan||April 10, 1992||WEA / Elektra Records||CD||WMC5-482|
|United States and Canada||April 2014||Asbestos Records||LP||ASB089|
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