#19 – “Lie Still, Little Bottle” (1988)
A.S.: Well, we’re really blowing our load on the Lincoln tracks here.
L.K.: We swear this isn’t rigged! Though I was just reappraising my feelings about Lincoln earlier today. I have no idea why I had such a lukewarm reception to this album before.
A.S.: It’s consistently been my favorite since I first listened to it, I think.
L.K.: I mean, my two favorite TMBG songs of all time are on it (“Ana Ng” and “They’ll Need A Crane”), along with a couple other songs I really like (“Kiss Me, Son of God”). It’s also got the song with my favorite lyrics of all time (“Ana Ng” again), as well as my favorite Flans song lyric-wise (“Piece Of Dirt”!). I have no idea why the album as a whole just didn’t seem that great for me. Maybe the individual parts just seemed greater than their sum?
A.S.: Perhaps; I don’t think it has as much of a flow as, say, the first LP or even Flood, largely due to the lack of strange little interlude tracks. Despite that though, I think every single track (yes, even “You’ll Miss Me”) is extremely strong, and “Crane” and “Kiss Me” are probably my two favorite TMBG songs.
L.K.: I mean, the first album feels more like an album than Lincoln does, even though the best songs are on Lincoln.
A.S.: But anyway, “Lie Still, Little Bottle”.
But yes, this song. This legendary song. Where would TMBG mythology be without THE STICK
A.S.: I think this is the first song that we’ve come across so far that has a truly distinct and constant evolution behind it.
L.K.: Yep. There’s a ton of different versions of this song, both in the studio and live. ”This song has been commonly misunderstood, this song is called “Lie Still, Little Bottle” and people seem to think it’s about alcoholism, but we are family entertainment, and this song is about, uh.amphetamines and barbiturates, actually, so please, don’t get the wrong idea.” – John Flansburgh
L.K.: Another TMBG song that is actually definitely about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. A rare occurrence.
I can see how people would miss the point just by gleaning the song title, but the lyrics explain it pretty clearly. Speaking of the lyrics, a little side question: do you think the “shake my shaky hand” is a Who reference? It seems like a bit too direct a quote to be anything other than a reference to “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand”
L.K.: Hmm… your guess is as good as mine. I don’t think it’s ever come up in an interview or anything whether that was a direct reference or not.
A.S.: They both start off with these sneaky, jazzy bass lines and finger-snap percussion.
L.K.: Just in that they’re both minimalist jazzy things.
A.S.: Plus, “LSLB” began to show up not long after the release of Skylarking, and we know how much Flans loves XTC (and The Who, for that matter).
L.K.: The rest of the song is pretty divergent though. It’s only the beginning of “MWSAHS” that resembles “Lie Still”, and that’s a pretty generic jazz trope: bass and finger-snaps.
A.S.: True, but maybe if TMBG had a bigger budget at the time, they would have explored a more grandiose arrangement. Or maybe they just avoided that much of it so it wasn’t a direct ripoff of the XTC song. It’s a total shot in the dark, but it doesn’t seem that improbable.
L.K.: I still feel like it’s coincidental just because it’s such a generic sort of “sound”.
A.S.: That’s definitely plausible too.
L.K.: The evolution of this song is really fascinating to me because I can’t think of any other single TMBG song that has appeared in so many different forms. The versions of this song that most people are familiar with are probably the live versions with “the stick” and the studio version from Lincoln, but this song has undergone so many mutations between the 1980s and today.
A.S.: Starting, I guess, with the Frank O’Toole Show demo, which we both just heard for the first time just now.
L.K.: Well, there was a Dial-A-Song version too, but that’s an incomplete recording, or at least the one I have is incomplete.
A.S.: That’s just a 19-second snippet of the song with Flansburgh’s incomprehensible garbling.
L.K.: I’m guessing that one probably predates the demo since it’s just Flans babbling gibberish.
A.S.: I suppose. But the first time the song appeared in full was on the Frank O’Toole Show, and good Lord, that is one hell of a version of the song.
L.K.: Oh yeah, this demo is noticeably different from the final studio version, and is completely fascinating in its own right – different key, and much different feel overall too.
A.S.: A rare instance of a song originally being in a higher key, which is more commonplace in rock and roll.
L.K.: There’s a really unsettling synth backing track going on in the demo, and a strange, strange bridge. The whole effect of the demo is just unsettling.
A.S.: I think it communicates the paranoid drug-related aspect of the song a lot better than the studio version; it’s a pretty terrifying rendition of the song.
L.K.: Definitely. The narrator’s withdrawal-influenced panic is sort of uncomfortably shifted onto the listener in the demo. No cool jazz bass and finger-snapping here.
A.S.: Just this almost post-punk, deep bass synth line. Then we get the early live iterations of the song, which more tonally resemble the final studio version, but feature a completely different arrangement, namely, the debut of The Stick.
L.K.: There’s nothing like a band that manages to get its audience chanting for an inanimate object.
A.S.: A six foot tall tree branch, only used to keep rhythm for one song.
L.K.: The Stick, usually played by Flansburgh, but also played by audience members at certain points during the 80s.
L.K.: Of course, the stick had to get phased out when it began to eclipse the band in popularity, and also because the audience came to expect it, and TMBG seems to be fond of phasing things out after people get used to them. They were playing with a metronome for a while…There are other Lincoln songs whose live versions are more significantly different from their studio versions, like “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go”, another song that’s used a metronome as its only percussion instrument live. In general, TMBG aren’t necessarily big proponents of having their live and studio versions resemble each other, even nowadays.
A.S.: Still, I wonder why the stick didn’t show up on the studio recording, which again, has an entirely different arrangement. Dwelling on the studio version for a second though, there are some really neat moments in that arrangement, namely the muted trumpet in the second repeat of the chorus, and especially the jarring low piano note right after the freak-out section. Those little details deserve mention.
L.K.: Ah, yes. It’s also worth noting that the sax section at the bridge is more or less directly lifted from a weird old Dial-A-Song track called “I Need Some Lovin’” that never made it past the answering machine.
A.S.: Oh wow, I’d never made that connection before. So the Stick gets replaced with the metronome…
L.K.: And somewhere along the line, when the stick left, John Flansburgh decided to start playing two trumpets at the same time instead. Not well, mind you, but he at least produces noises in two trumpets at the same time.
A.S.: And meanwhile, Linnell is on one of the greatest of instruments…
L.K.: THE BASS SAXOPHONE!
L.K.: Nothing is more tragic than performances of this song where Linnell is on the INFERIOR BARITONE SAXOPHONE. So anyway, they were playing it like that for a while live in the early 90s… and then at some point, the stick came back! And then it went away again as the song fell out of the setlist once more.
A.S.: And then returned this last tour in yet another arrangement: Marty Beller on drums, John Linnell on bass clarinet (which I espouse to be the greatest instrument), and Flans making atonal noises on the SX-150 Analog Synth.
A.S.: Yes, I still do. Still bookmarked on my browser as “Lie Still Little Bottle”
L.K.: It’s this little Japanese synth that you build yourself. It’s not particularly easy to control and doesn’t make noises that are particularly pleasant to listen to… but if you want to make noises, then it’s pretty good for that. Flans apparently had already built and broken one of them before he was playing it regularly on tour.
A.S.: I wonder how, I hope it was some ridiculous accident that would cause damage to any sort of instrument, because at some point, hopefully sooner than later, I intend to purchase it and build it myself, especially since it’s not that expensive.
L.K.: I can guarantee that you’re probably much easier on your instruments than Flans is on his… we’re talking about a guy who has to have his guitar completely restrung every night, though I’m willing to bet it’s not a particularly durable device either.
A.S.: It’ll be worth it. He gets some cool noises out of that thing.
L.K.: The state of the synth after the trailer fire is unknown though… They’ll be playing more Lincoln shows when they go back on tour later this week, so we’ll see if the synth comes back for this third leg of the Join Us tour.
A.S.: Or if they redo the arrangement once again! Either way, I hope it winds up on whatever live release they have planned from the last tour.
L.K.: There should be one coming out in the next week or so, at least for IFC members, so we’ll see what songs are on it…