YOU PROBABLY know them for their theme tune for Malcolm in The Middle, maybe you’ve heard ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ (if you have heard it, you’ll know because I’m certain that even reading this will be enough to get it stuck in your head), maybe you’ve ventured far enough into their back catalogue to enjoy the notable albums like Lincoln or Flood but today I want to venture to the point of no return for any music fan – the live album. I’ll admit this probably isn’t the most obvious choice for this section. I mean it’s not to speak negatively of They Might Be Giants, a band with still a loyal and fervent fan-base but Severe Tire Damage is not as historically notable as many other albums on these lists even by 1998 standards, it’s not as notable as self-titled releases by System of a Down or Queens of the Stone Age. Yet here I am writing about this album and not those for one simple reason; I think it’s bloody brilliant.
Severe Tire Damage is a mostly live album recorded over the mid 1990s but it was partially billed as a greatest hits. The reason I love it is because of its ability to reinterpret its own history. Songs that were stripped back on record are given the full band (and horn section) treatment and those that were full band recordings are stripped back. There is a lack of vanity to the style as they take their songs and change them inherently. Possibly the song that benefits most from this is ‘Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)’, on record, this is a catchy if under produced recording but when bolstered by some supremely crunchy guitar work, it becomes an instant classic and ever-present earworm. Talking of earworms, the handful of new studio recordings on this album are some of the bands finest including personal favourite ‘Dr Worm’, the story of a drummer who isn’t a doctor but he is a worm. It is, as with the best of TMBG’s work, on the surface a dryly humorous tale but one told with enough quiet, sincere melancholy that it has an aching joy behind it. I also dare anyone to restrain their joy at the sounds of Rabbi Vole’s bass solo.
TMBG are a band constantly sounding like they’re experimenting with their sound. Well, it’s either that or just one that enjoy screwing with their fans. I mean it takes a certain amount of bravery to finish an album of live recordings of some of your greatest hits with a six part improvised cycle of insanity based on Planet of the Apes, either that or an incredibly pretentious act of self-indulgent hubris. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. TMBG never seem like an act so enthralled by their own hype (possibly because the hype has never been too present) as to become firmly wedged up their own backsides long enough to produce something that isn’t fully aware of its own ridiculousness. They are a band playing the clown but it would be simple enough to view it as a bunch of clowns playing a band.
Honestly, it’s difficult for me to say it in more words than quite simply ‘it’s fun’. It’s a fun, silly, enjoyable blast that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Music is like anything: sometimes you want something deep, meaningful and life changing and sometimes you want a sheer blast of pure joy. Not every album can be Nevermind or What’s Going On? or Extraordinary Machine but not everything can be or has to be. This album has the same appeal that Ocean’s Eleven has in comparison to Saving Private Ryan. Ocean’s isn’t an important document but it is an enjoyable piece of entertainment made by intelligent people. You know they’re capable of making something theoretically ‘better’ but they don’t always need to. Entertainment has to be entertaining. It seems tautologically pointless to say but so many bands seem to forget it. A live album should recreate the experience of seeing that band live, that’s all you need from it yet from this you get that and so much more.