To really understand my relationship with Factory Showroom – They Might Be Giant’s sixth album, released in 1996 – you have to jump forward a few years to the cusp of the new millennia.
In the latter half of the year 1999, I packed my bags and kicked off my Junior year of college by heading fourteen hours into the future towards the Land of the Rising Sun. I’d only been studying Japanese for a year at that point, but some friends from our sister university convinced me that there was no time like the present. And really, what better way to learn than by diving in to the point I’d be unable to function on a daily basis unless I figured out how to communicate?
The success or failure of that aside, the point of this story is that when I packed up for my time abroad, I was pretty limited in what I could carry. This was a time before iPods and digital music, so whatever I wanted to bring with me was going to be in the form of a Sony Discman and clunky CDs.
Taking a massive pile of CDs on the plane just felt like wasted space, so I decided I’d limit myself to just two CDs, with the the rest of my music being shipped over by freight to arrive a few weeks later. I don’t quite recall what the logic behind my selection process was, but I think I just went with “these are the two most recent TMBG albums I have.” So it was that I crossed half the world with just Factory Showroom and Severe Tire Damage to keep me company.
The plan seemed solid enough. The first few weeks there I barely even had time to sit down and listen to music. There were places to go, things to see, and the cultural foibles that needed to be sorted out. Still, as the days went on I eventually fell into a pretty regular rhythm, and the late nights in my Dai-Go Meiko Haitsu apartment usually involved me sitting at my table (the only piece of furniture I had) with a can of Mistio and writing, my bulky foam earphones blaring away.
I listened to those two albums a lot those nights. Sometimes I’d even just put them on repeat as the hours wore on. So by the time my package of extra stuff arrived after its long journey, I was understandably enthused about having something new to listen to.
Now, I don’t know whether it was by some oversight of my own or some unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of my parents, but when I tore open that giant box and started rooting around inside, the one thing I definitely did not find was any more music. Not a single CD tucked away anywhere.
This was a problem.
Still, I wasn’t about to let a little thing like this throw me off my game. I had the music I had, and I was just going to keep on keeping on.
Just keep on keeping on.
With the same thirty tracks.
For three months.
This little experiment ended much the way you would suspect it would. By the time I boarded a plane home in the chill winter air of Tokyo, I had firmly made up my mind that I would not be listening to either album again any time soon.
And so it’s been for the last 18 years.
Your Own Worst Enemy
I probably had an opinion on Factory Showroom before my extended period of confinement for it, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was. The thing is, even after my overdose, I don’t know that I ever really hated it. I just… didn’t want to hear it anymore. So where many of the earlier TMBG albums faded from prominence simply by nature of time, Factory Showroom is the first one where I made a conscious effort to avoid it.
So now, a decade a half or so later, what would coming back to it be like?
Factory Showroom kicks off with “S-E-X-X-Y”, and the thing that strikes me the most listening to it on the heels of John Henry is how clean it sounds. Not to say John Henry sounded rough, but there’s a quality to “S-E-X-X-Y” you’ll immediately peg as different. This is an album that feels like it was put through the polisher a few times. A lot of it comes down to instrumentation – John Henry nailed the “rock band” sound (with brass section, natch), but Factory Showroom runs the gamut from synths to horns to (as you’ll hear in this track) strings.
“S-E-X-X-Y” gives way to “Till My Head Falls Off”, which steps back to a more John Henry feel, building on the energy set by the first track. This is the kind of song that will snap you out of a stressful workplace afternoon should you ever happen to need it. That’s why it’s so odd to me that it then flows into “How Can I Sing Like a Girl.”
The third track on the album, “Girl” is one of the specific culprits that still lingered in my mind from those 18 years prior. Returning to it again, I have to be honest that it still really bugs me. There is something about the tone of the whole piece – and I mean the literal, musical tone – that grates on me. To add to it, it goes on for nearly five minutes which is damn near a marathon in TMBG terms. I think if this song had been half the length, I wouldn’t harbor such negative feelings towards it. But even now I find it a slog to get through the whole thing.
It’s somewhat fortunate then that track 4 – “Exquisite Dead Guy” – is a delightfully catchy, short little romp. If you can listen to this track and not end up humming the opening bars to yourself at the most inopportune moments, I tip my cap to you.
By the time I reached track five – “Metal Detector” – I was beginning to feel like I was getting past my psychological aversion to the album. “Metal Detector” is a nifty little number, and hearing it again made me realize how little credit I’d given it over the years. It’s got a synth vibe that meshes well with the theme of the song, and it gets big bonus points for working “folderol” into the lyrics effortlessly. After being reminded of this song’s existence, it quickly made its way into regular rotation and – more importantly – my bedtime set list for my daughter.
Riding the high of “Metal Detector,” it was all the more painful that from track six onward, things took a turn for the worse. It’s not that any of the songs following are outright bad – some are actually quite catchy or lyrically well-crafted – it’s just that they don’t quite resonate with me. “New York City” is fun and poppy, but just isn’t my thing. “Spiraling Shape” has some very good melodic beats, but again doesn’t quite stick the landing for me.
In spite of my negativity, there are some highlights on the rest of the album. Track 11 – “Pet Name” – is another wonderful John F gritty love song backed by a nice jazzy arrangement. “James K. Polk” is a driving romp, and I can almost guarantee you it will teach you more about James K. Polk than you currently know.
Still, by and large the album leaves me not too upset about giving it short shrift all these years. I think part of it is the element of overproduction – every track sounds like it was poured over time and time again until they were layered with more and more. Not that TMBG have ever had a rough sound, but there is a certain charm missing from it present on earlier albums.
You Heard It From the Spiral In Your Eye
It’s strange, really – 18 years of holding a bad taste in your mouth about an album you overindulged in, only to realize now that maybe it wasn’t about overindulgence at all. Maybe I never really liked Factory Showroom. Maybe I’d just convinced myself it was all about quantity rather than admit that maybe my favorite band had put out an album I wasn’t all that in to.
Well, growing up is about learning to accept certain truths about yourself, so I guess this is one I just have to deal with. Factory Showroom is a fine album – it’s got a handful of great tracks. It’s also got a lot of tracks I’m happy to move past.
At the very least, it taught me a lifelong lesson about proper trip preparation. For that I owe it one.
Next up: Mink Car