They Might Be Giants, “XTC Vs. Adam Ant” (1996)
Like most nerdy ’90s kids, I loved They Might Be Giants. My initial gateways were well-loved cassette copies of 1990’s Flood and 1992’s Apollo 18, although I later snapped up 1994’s John Henry, 1996’s Factory Showroom, and the mammoth double retrospective album Then: The Earlier Years, just to round out my collection. Back then, I gravitated toward the unexpected depth of the band’s songs, which resonated perfectly with my angst. (After all, Flood was fraught with anxiety, and obsessed with personal loss and death.)
But TMBG also appealed to my insatiable appetite for music discovery: There was the song “We’re The Replacements”—with references to a missing Tommy I didn’t get until years later—and Flood’s surf-rock rave-up “Twisting,” which was likely my first exposure to the dB’s and Young Fresh Fellows. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I rescued a YFF album from the bargain bin at one point because of that song.) Perhaps the apex of TMBG being “hopelessly trapped in a world of pop culture references” (the band’s words) was “XTC Vs. Adam Ant,” a hulking, guitar-heavy song on Factory Showroom.
The song sprang up in the wake of TMBG contributing a cover of the Dukes Of Stratosphear’s “25 O’Clock” to the brilliant XTC tribute album A Testimonial Dinner. But despite the title, the battle of U.K. pop music darlings the title hints at isn’t antagonistic, and it isn’t necessarily weighted toward Andy Partridge and company, either: As the lyrics explain, “Just when you think it’s finished with XTC on top/‘Ant Music,’ like a phoenix, flies back up the charts.” Cello and violin join the squealing electric guitars in the song’s bridge, conveying the ostensible friction of the musical conundrum, but then gracefully give way to repeated assurances that “There is no right or wrong.” There’s plenty of room for both smart, kaleidoscopic power-pop and ridiculous, rhythm-heavy Ant-punk—so everybody wins.