They Might Be Giants
Early on during They Might Be Giants’s show at Boulder’s Fox Theatre, keyboardist/accordionist/vocalist John Linnell called a song to a premature halt, waving his hands frantically at his bandmates.
“Whoa, hold it guys,” he croaked. “I don’t know what’s wrong-my voice is all messed up.”
Though the band is known for its onstage pranks, this wasn’t one of them. Holding his throat, it appeared that Linnell really was having trouble with his vocal chords.
“It’s the altitude,” suggested an audience member.
“No, it’s not the altitude,” Linnell answered. “It must be the latitude. What is this-the 40th parallel? We can’t play shows at the 40th parallel!”
It was a perfect moment, neatly summing up They Might Be Giants’s enduring appeal: absurd, brainy, and hilarious all at once. Even as Linnell and co-founder John Flansburgh enter middle age, their skewed worldview remains firmly in place. The band may be written off by non-fans as overly quirky novelty pop, but anyone who’s given Flood, Apollo 18, or Factory Showroom a real listen knows that there’s depth beneath the oddball humor, not to mention some great pop.
Fortunately Linnell was able to recover quickly from his mysterious onset of latitude-induced sickness, and he and Flansburgh led their backing band through a fine overview of songs from TMBG’s now two-decade long career. Their last album, 2004’s The Spine, was a bit underwhelming, but the band didn’t seem particularly interested in promoting it. In fact, the best later period songs came from TMBG’s two children’s albums, 2002’s No! and this year’s Here Comes The ABC’s. The funk rock of “John Lee, Supertaster” saw Flansburgh jumping around the stage gleefully, like a kid lip-syncing in his bedroom. The song, as its title suggests, tells the tale of a young man with heightened taste buds. The result, Flansburgh offers helpfully, is that “when he tastes a pear, it tastes like a hundred pears!” It’s that rare example of a song that a three year old and a thirty-three year old can agree on.
The current live incarnation of They Might Be Giants is a far cry from the band’s origins as a guitar/accordion/keyboard duo. Indeed, the band’s career trajectory can be seen as an ongoing move towards a more traditional rock band format. Some of the band’s earliest supporters may have a problem with this, but whatever: at the Fox, the punk-pop renditions of songs both old and new sounded great.
The band’s most beloved tune, “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, was given an irreverently revved up reading, sounding more like a Ramones anthem than anything else. TMBG may have a reputation for being twee-er than twee, but they proved that they’re capable of kicking out the proverbial jams. Their blazing cover of Cub’s ode to the Big Apple, “New York City”, slammed this point home—it almost looked as though a pit would break out up front.
The best part of the night, however, came when Linnell and Flansburgh abandoned the hits and played a mini-set of as-yet-unreleased songs written during their last tour, each one dedicated to the various venues the band visited. Encompassing a dizzying array of musical genres, the titles included “I Got Kicked In The Head At The Stone Pony in Asbury Park”, and “Leave Your Crack Pipe At Home And Come On Down To The Anaheim House Of Blues”, and “Let’s Celebrate Brooklyn!” Some of the almost dozen songs in this set were pretty half-baked, but they were entertaining nonetheless. And anyway, the band seemed to be getting quite a kick out of playing them. It was a heartening spectacle to see the band’s two principles, after all these years, still willing to be totally immature.