John Linnell

State Songs
(Zoë Records)

Brooklyn-bred John Linnell is one half of perennial chess club/nosebleed favorites They Might Be Giants -- the nasal-sounding, accordion-and-sax-playing half, that is. And with his ongoing "Fifty State Songs" project (which began with 1994's State Songs EP, available through Giants partner in crime John Flansburgh's subscription-only Hello CD club), Linnell's focus is all over the map. Whether he's driving his house through the darkness to Idaho, catching us up on West Virginia's rhododendrons or waxing poetic about the Beaver State ("Oregon is bad/Stop it if you can"), the prolific Particle Man revisits some old haunts that fans haven't experienced since the Giants' hyper-creative glory days: the self-titled 1986 debut and its clever followup, Lincoln. Combining paper-roll cut Wurlitzer organs, fife and bugle corp arrangements, car alarms, polkas and Dustbusters, Linnell reanimates his absurd ear for uncommon melodies, jigsaw logic and art-school cleverness. Choosing to honor the country's least hip states -- Utah, Arkansas, South Carolina, and so forth -- seems less than accidental, as each distinct jurisdiction receives its due treatment, endearing, irreverent or otherwise. Whether the cultural meccas of New York and California receive a little chin music from Linnell in the future remains to be seen. For now, playful pokes at President Clinton's boyhood home of Arkansas -- the song refers to the less-than-watertight Battleship Arkansas, one designed in the very shape of the state that bears her name -- come complete with faux pomp and circumstance and work brilliantly. Otherwise, everyone already knows that "no one likes New Hampshire" and that Nevada leans toward the naughty side, including its historical penchant for testing atomic weapons. As educational as it is ridiculous (Idaho's "vast hydroelectric dams produce enough power to deep-fry each of her potatoes millions of times over"), State Songs is an unbeatable joyride for weary travelers, plus a fun, G-rated audio compendium to any American road atlas. If only Linnell could have found a way to include a Stuckey's pecan log.

 
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