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"Two Who Play Rock's Odd Couple" by Wayne Robins
Newsday, Nov. 14, 1986, p. 17
The unpretentious saloon Tramps is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month by featuring the venerable blues and rhythm-and-blues artists that have appeared at the club over the years... But Tramps is also to be lauded for booking unconventional contemporary acts. They Might Be Giants, which appeared Wednesday night, is a good example.
With 19 songs on its album, They Might Be Giants couldn't do all its worthwhile material. Neither "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" nor "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" made it to the stage. Oh well - maybe they'll show up soon on Dial-A-Song.
The two Giants - John Flansburgh and John Linnell - are nothing if not inventive. Until recently, they had no record deal. No problem: They got themselves a Dial-A-Song number (718) 387-6962 that features a different tune every day. Dial-A-Song continues even though the group recently released an album on the Bar / None label.
Both live and on record, the group strikes a nice balance between parody and originality, with the emphasis on humor in both delivery and content. Flansburgh (guitar) and Linnell (accordion) each wore silk pajamas and a fez Wednesday night. Their first song, "Number Three," was a country tune about the tribulations of a songwriter with an extremely limited imagination: "There's only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third."
After "I Was a Snowball in Hell," about a former manager, and "Purple Toupee," Flansburgh and Linnell passed around notepads so the audience could suggest questions for their next appearance on the "Joe Franklin Show." (The last time they appeared, they didn't have anything to talk about).
The group runs amok over the whole spectrum of pop styles. "Don't Let's Start" would be a fine song for the early Jackson Five, if the Jackson Five did songs about waiting for the apocalypse. "You'll Miss Me," also about death, combines guttural vocals by Flansburgh and some free-jazz bass saxophone playing by Linnell that recalls the wild impressionism of Captain Beefheart.
"Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes" is partly a takeoff on John Lennon's "Nothing's Gonna Change My World." But, clever as the singing is, it also points out the group's main flaw, which might be described as silliness for its own sake. Lyrics such as "All the people are so happy now, their heads are caving in / I'm glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin" don't exactly make the song a landmark in the intellectual history of western civilization.
They Might Be Giants work much better when they keep their targets in focus. "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" seemed to be about conformity and fear of risk-taking. "Rhythm Section Want Ad" took a jaundiced view of a favorite means for musicians to get together. "Do you sing like Olive Oyl on purpose / You guys must be into the Eurythmics," they sang.