When John Linnell, half of the quirky rock duo They Might Be Giants, says, "This sounds a little weird," you know the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is up to something.
This is, after all, a man whose band once sang about a guy who wants a "Shoehorn With Teeth" and later debated the burning issue of "XTC vs. Adam Ant."
What he's been up to lately is his first solo album, State Songs, an assortment of 15 newly conceived U.S. state "anthems" released in the fall on Rounder Records. And "a little weird" is one way of describing it.
"I actually assembled a collection of songs with states as the titles but that don't really have anything to do with the states," Linnell said. "I thought it would be nice to present it as if they were state anthems which, of course, they're really not."
He began working on the project 12 years ago while recording the second album for They Might Be Giants, the duo with John Flansburgh that cornered the market on brainy, often humorous indie pop in the late '80s and early '90s. They had such left-field hits as "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man."
"I liked the idea of song titles that didn't immediately give you the whole idea of the song," Linnell said. "Very typically, John and I have written songs where the title is kind of the kernel of the whole song. ... So this was going to be a completely different idea, where there would be a set of names that wouldn't tell you anything."
Linnell started making lists of things, including U.S. presidents and "Planet of the Apes" movie titles. (The latter list eventually spawned a set of tracks on the 1998 live album Severe Tire Damage.) He settled on states with the idea that he could assemble them as a collection of anthems.
"But these anthems don't talk about how great the state is, or how much you love the state. You don't put your hand over your heart while you are singing them," he said. "Some of them are distinctly negative, and some of them could be perceived as negative. I wouldn't presume to tell you whether it is or isn't."
"Michigan" (RealAudio excerpt) was the first state to receive the star treatment, immortalized on disc in what Linnell said sounds like a "football game song." "But as I wrote more songs," he said, "they got farther away from sounding like traditional anthems."
State Songs is packed with wacky jingles and circus pop. "Iowa" (RealAudio excerpt) features Linnell on the Dustbuster, while "Idaho" (RealAudio excerpt) is set to an annoyingly familiar-sounding car alarm.
"I was thinking this is a sound that will probably go out of style at some point and be forever associated with the late-20th century," Linnell said of the alarm. "So it's kind of a nice thing to put it on a record and have it preserved, for better or worse.
"There was one going off all day outside my studio one day. So, finally, I just took a tape recorder and held it up next to the window and got a nice recording for the album," Linnell added.
Linnell, who was named People Online's Ninth Most Beautiful Person last year, said the one connection between the song and the state is simply the sound of the name.
"Each state has a rhythm to its name, so I would try out different states with melodies," he explained. "There's a sound that Iowa has that fits the story of a witch. It shouldn't be taken too personally among Iowans."
Apparently, it's not. According to Conor Bezane, a disc jockey at KURE-FM in Ames, Iowa, Linnell's homage is a favorite at the college station.
"I know DJs who will pick up that CD and immediately play the Iowa song because our station is headquartered in Iowa, and there's others who are from Illinois or other states, and they'll play those songs as kind of a home-state pride thing," Bezane said.
Chances are slim that Linnell's tunes will displace any official state songs, although an employee of one state seemed willing to entertain the notion. "Our official state song is 'Oregon My Oregon,' but no one here knows the words," John Coney, spokesperson for Gov. John Kitzhaber, said. "Changing it would have to go through the Oregon Legislature, but considering last time they were in session they changed the state motto, it's probably not that far-out of an idea."
Like most of what They Might Be Giants have done, the State Songs experiment is most likely to please the band's loyal following, who keep the labelless duo in business by phoning their unique Dial-A-Song service and downloading their MP3s. (They Might Be Giants had the most downloads of any band on the Web last year, according to Emusic.)
While Flansburgh, Linnell's partner in rhyme, has been fronting his own side project, Mono Puff, for several years, State Songs is Linnell's first non-Giants effort.
"When John and I work together, we do whatever we want we're not thinking of a sound we want to refine," Linnell said. "With State Songs, I felt I could focus in on a more specific idea. There was something I felt I could do outside They Might Be Giants that would be pretty different."
The most extraordinary sounds on State Songs come from vintage carousel organs, which supply the melodies on four of the 15 tracks. Linnell said he originally tried to record the carousel in New York's Central Park but was turned away because he didn't have a permit. He eventually tracked down two men who punch holes in paper rolls for carousel organs and had them transfer his arrangements to that late-19th-century format.
"It was a crazy amount of work," Linnell said, "but the results were obviously something different, which made it worth it."