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State Songs

4.6 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Audio CD, October 26, 1999
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The prolific and quirky John Linnell of They Might Be Giants has come up with 16 pop songs-one each for 16 different states of the U.S., but not literally, of course. Here you'll find songs about Iowa being a witch and Oregon being bad ("Oregon is bad / Stop it if you can"), coupled with every musical genre you can think of-bossa nova, carnival music, polka, you name it. Linnell's craggy twang wraps around the surreal lyrics with a brainy, tongue-in-cheek earnestness that will, no doubt, delight TMBG fans. Linnell, an equivocating sort, gives the rest of us a little slack. In "The Songs of the Fifty States," an overture of sorts, he sings, "I'm not going to say they're great, I ain't gonna say they ain't." Pipe organs and accordions flesh out most of these songs, contributing immensely to their old-timey wackiness and giving the impression that these pieces could have been written for a 1940s-era musical comedy. --Wally Shoup
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Product Details

  • Audio CD (October 26, 1999)
  • Original Release Date: 1999
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Zoe
  • ASIN: B00002DDPR
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #212,091 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Gena Chereck on June 28, 2003
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
John Linnell, They Might Be Giants' gangly, boyishly handsome, lank-haired, right-handed accordion/keyboards/sax-playing half, actually began working on his "state songs" project around the time They were recording the classic 1988 LP Lincoln. As he was having difficulty coming up with song titles (which largely dictate the content of TMBG songs), he came up with the idea of simply naming songs after states; that way, he was guaranteed at least fifty titles, and he could approach songwriting in a fresh way -- letting each state name dictate the rhythm or musical style, but not offering the listener any hints as to what the lyrics will be about (sort of like how more mainstream songs just have girls' names for titles).
Linnell's solo CD State Songs (1999) features 15 of these tunes; a 16th, "Songs of the 50 States," is a goofy overview that promises, "I'm not gonna say they're great, I ain't gonna say they ain't," and such an equivocal attitude permeates this whole disc. As with anything TMBG-related, it needs to be approached with an open mind -- don't expect to find anything remotely educational or patriotic here, and don't expect to find much social commentary or self-revelation either. But while he's no Bruce Springsteen or Lucinda Williams, he does share their tendency to not just talk about places, but rather to tell stories and examine characters. "West Virginia" is a self-absorbed woman to whom the frustrated narrator tries to reach out ("You'll contin-ya to be constantly a part of you / You'll never part and you will be the party who will be partial to you"). "Idaho" is the destination of either a drug-addled fellow trying to "drive" his house or a musician taking his turn at the wheel of the tour bus while his bandmates sleep.
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Format: Audio CD
I'd forgotten how good this was. When I first bought "State Songs" in 1999, it was as much out of curiosity as it was a holding action while I waited for They Might Be Giants' next album. The CD has been sitting on my shelf for the last few years, taking an invisible form with all the other silver platters.
But it deserves to be blasted out all over this great land. John Linnell's brilliance as a songwriter shines through the record, and his rhythms, arrangements and melodies throughout the album are consistently amazing: Even with the carousel album merrily chugging along in the background, the songs have the mix of sweetness and melancholy you expect from TMBG, all set to a great beat.
Linnell takes the concept of songs reflecting different emotional states and applies it to political states. So "Montana" is about enlightenment, "New Hampshire" rejection, and "Oregon" paranoia (I think). A number of these songs could be straight pop compositions with the substitution of a personal name: Turn "Maine" into "Jane," and the chorus becomes "Jane/At the top of the charts/Has crushed my evil heart."
Post-modernism? Pop deconstruction? Whatever. It works, and mostly because Linnell doesn't take the concept too literally. Some of the songs are simple exercises in surrealism: "Arkansas," set to a lovely sea melody, is all about the doomed effort to sail a ship shaped like Arkansas ("on a scale of one to one"), and "Michigan" concludes with an exhortation to "eat Michigan's brain.
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Format: Audio CD
John Linnel, half of the world's greatest band, They Might Be Giants, is a certified bugaboo, if State Songs is any indication. In his odd imagination, Iowa is a witch, Montana is a leg, we must eat Michigan's brains, and Oregon is bad and must be stopped. Many of the lyrics have dark undercurrents of alienation, illness, and hinted drug abuse (Idaho?). That said, all this lunacy is wrapped in a pretty compelling package. Instruments ranging from a car alarm and dustbuster to a "band organ" (that big thing that makes music for carousels) set off heavenly slices of pop, rock, and less standard stuff: "Michigan" sounds like a 1920's Tin Pan Alley song, "Iowa" like Cole Porter on acid, "Arkansas" a traditional sea chanty. Not to mention the most catchy song ever written, the pop masterpiece "South Carolina." The only reason I didn't give it five stars is that there's probably one instrumental too many, and "Nevada" is 8 minutes of "found music" that doesn't bear repeated listens. But this one is a worthy addition to any collection.
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Format: Audio CD
Okay, he's working without John Flansburgh, but this record is nonetheless excellent, with an eclectic collection of songs somewhat reminiscent of earlier They Might Be Giants material. The album features some instruments sadly neglected in most modern popular music, including the accordion, the clarinet, and the carousel band organ. The lyrics are excellent as well. As other reviewers have already made clear, the songs are not really about the states themselves, although they sometimes do use some imagery related to the divisions of our great country. There's a song about a guy driving his house (based on an anecdote about John Lennon on an acid trip), a psychadelic electric organ piece about the concentric form of West Virginia, and an upbeat polka that includes the line, "We must eat Michigan's brain." It's not for everyone, I suppose, but those willing to go beyond the obvious into the skewed and twisted world of John Linnell, where a state is not necessarily a state, will probably find this one quite rewarding.
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