Album Throwback: Lincoln by They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants is an Alternative Rock band. Their first album They Might be Giants was released in 1986, and their most recent release was The Communists Have The Music September of 2018. In this review, I will be focusing on the album Lincoln which saw the beginning of They Might Be Giants’ rise to popularity in 1988. While Lincoln was mainly popular in college settings, it was They Might Be Giants’ first album to get mass attention from the music community with “Ana Ng” becoming their first single to land on any Billboard chart. This was mostly due to their unusual distribution methods. Every part of Lincoln saw They Might Be Giants trying to cheaply create and distribute their music so that it could reach the widest audience possible.

    Since they were working within a budget, Lincoln was produced without a full band getup, so the majority of the background music was synthetic or made with sampling. That is with the exception of live drums in “Lie Still, Little Bottle”. Despite this, the songs represent a wide range of sounds and melodies. “Lie Still, Little Bottle” has a slow bass accompanied with the snapping of fingers, and short flashes of the snare and a trumpet, lulling the listener into contentment. “Shoehorn with Teeth” uses a series of trumpets with the occasional dash on the triangle to create a song that mimics a jingle and critiques some people’s desire to control speech they don’t agree with, while openly vocalizing their own viewpoints.“Ana Ng” uses mainly guitar and bass and takes inspiration from the name Ng. John Linnell, one of the bands main singers,  became fascinated with the name after finding four pages worth of it in the Manhattan phone book. Each song showcases They Might Be Giants’ style, combining cheerful, eclectic, upbeat rhythms with political and social messages that John Flansburgh himself has described as “existential dread”.

    In 1988 They Might Be Giants was just starting to gain prominence, and Lincoln marked the beginning of their ascent reaching number 11 on the US Modern Rock chart. While the band was well known on college campuses, its music was not a major part of North American popular music until after their album Flood was released in 1989. While the album’s title Lincoln is a reference to John Linnell’s and John Flansburgh’s hometown Lincoln, Massachusetts. It was originally supposed to be named Lincoln Calling as a way to reference London Calling, an album by Clash.

    While both Johns were from Massachusetts, Linnell and Flansburgh created They Might Be Giants in Brooklyn, New York in 1981. In 1982 they started distributing their music through phone messages, or what they called “Dial-A-Song”. By recording their songs on a phone machine, they were able to distribute their music through flyers that listed a phone number that fans could call in to in order to hear one of their songs. To make people aware of “Dial-A-Song” Linnell and Flansburgh put up fliers around New York requesting people call for a song. “Dial-A-Song” was a way for They Might Be Giants to promote themselves when they had no other way too. Flansburgh credits Dial-A-Song with keeping the band together stating in an interview with Consequence of Sound that if his four tape recorder had been stolen with the rest of his stuff, “we probably would have never been able to regroup”. Without any money or equipment to record with their only option to continue recording and creating music was with the tape recorder.

    In 1988 when Lincoln was released Dial-A-Song would still have been a way for They Might Be Giants to interact with and continue to introduce themselves and their music to an audience. They may have been in a position with which to distribute an album to the public, but Dial-A-Phone still offered another way to introduce themselves to the world. What makes their most method interesting is that they used a local 718 number which only used regular phone charges, rather than a 900 number that charged $2 for the first minute then $0.45 every minute after that. Dial-A-Song continued from 1982 to 2006 and was restarted by the band in 2015 both as a toll-free phone number, as well as through a new website. In 1988 when Lincoln was released Dial-A-Song was a way for They Might Be Giants to promote their album, and continue building a fanbase.

    While other bands during the 1980’s were using the Hotline method, they were generally already well-known bands trying to make a littlest of extra cash through a 900 area code. According to Pitchfork on “You Used to Call me on My: Hotlines in Pop Music”  The New Rap Hotline might “put you in touch with the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff”. KISS, Paula Abdul and Warrant all had a hotline, while David Bowie had a customer service hotline in the 1990’s. They Might Be Giants were in no way the only ones using the Hotline or Dial-A-Song method, but they were the most considerate.

    MTV had a similar impact on the distribution of their music to the world. In 1987 when They Might Be Giants released their first album MTV, was only a couple of years old, and yet MTV had already taken over the pop charts. They Might Be Giants, having no money with which to use to promote themselves with could not afford the kind of promotions that MTV offered. It was therefore surprising that MTV took notice of a video that they had made to promote their first album with. In an interview with Consequence of Sound Flansburgh described the appeal of They Might Be Giants as “On MTV, all the established acts were so afraid of looking silly…that it was very leaden and pompous. John and I were as pretentious as anybody…but we didn’t care about our personas,”. MTV gave They Might Be Giants the opportunity to reach audiences that they could not have otherwise. But it was their music’s merit, and the video’s merit that caused its popularity and turned They Might Be Giants into a National act, in a time where if you didn’t have money that kind of promotion was almost entirely unheard of.

    In 1988 Lincoln represented a niche within the music industry, both within They Might Be Giants’ promotion methods but also within the industries definition of genre, a niche that they still occupy today. Lincoln was prominent within the radios on college campuses gaining a huge following from college students. People that still listen today have passed on their music tastes to their children and their significant others so that They Might Be Giants audiences range across generations. In an article from the rolling stone by Amy Rose Spiegel, she states that the band’s influence comes from their ability to “[shake] off the harness that “cool” imposes on the creation of innovative and surprising music.” This statement would have been just as prominent in 1988 as it was in 2015 when the article was written. They Might Be Giants music in Lincoln is innovative, inspiring, and upbeat, despite the political and social commentary that the songs and the album presents.

    Ultimately They Might be Giants had to be innovative, in order to put themselves out there and survive in the industry. It was They Might Be Giants’ innovation and use of what resources they had and could afford that made them different, and that placed them in a position with which to move forward and become the band they are today.