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"They Might Be Giants exhibit wit and weirdness" by Aidan R. Wasley
The Japan Times, Dec. 19, 1990:
By now the word "nerd" has probably been used in every article ever written about They Might Be Giants. This one will be no exception.
While listening to them on record and watching John Linnell and John Flansburgh perform onstage, one can't help by feel that these are two nerds who made good. They look like they've overcome years of abuse by their hipper, bigger, and dumber peers, traded in their slide rules, pocket protectors, and Star Trek trivia books for a guitar, an accordion and a drum machine and made the big time.
The strange thing is that you get the feeling that TMBG don't mind being called nerds, geeks, or any other derisive name typically given by the intolerant and ignorant to the overeducated and socially inept. In fact, they seem to cultivate their goofy image. They are studiously unfashionable, wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses and loud shirts, and sing about toupees, Jason and the Argonauts, and particle physics. "I'll Sink Manhattan," a song from their latest album, succinctly expresses their "revenge of the nerds" mentality as they sing of their desire to send the island of financiers and phoneys to a watery grave. They are nerds and proud of it.
It works. They've ridden the wave of their own eccentricity to U.S. college radio superstardom and critical acclaim. That they've also achieved some measure of international fame was confirmed by the Yamanote-sendensity crowd that squeezed into Shibuya's Club Quattro to see the pair of merry punsters perform last week.
Their performance set-up was a peculiar one. On a stage bare except for three huge, identical, floodlit photos of a woman's face, one John leaped awkwardly about, wrestling with an electric guitar while the other stood nearly motionless, lost in his accordion-playing. Since a solidaity guitar and an accordion don't make for much of a rhythm section, they used a preprogrammed drum machine and sound effects to mimic the heavily produced sound of their records.
Unfortunately, the recorded backing track inhibited their spontaneity since they were forced to play all their songs in a preordained sequence. The booming, incessant, drum machine track, which sometimes drowned out the vocals and live instrumentation, also allowed them very little leeway to improvise, alter, or extend the songs in any way, or they would have faced the possibility of having the drum program end before they had actually finished playing the song.
To the more cynical it all seemed somewhat like a glorified karaoke system with the two Johns crooning along to their own record. To those more inclined to simply enjoy the show − the vast majority of the audience − it represented the best way to approximate the sound of TMBG's recorded music in a live setting, without the distraction of a backup band. Quibbles aside, the pair managed to give the audience exactly what it wanted: a live dose of the literate loopiness that is usually available only from their albums. The band has two major-label releases thus far, the 1988 "Lincoln" and this year's "Flood," along with a slew of independently distributed singles, EPs and a 1986 debut LP which is currently being re-released.
Their songs don't always make much sense. In fact, more often than not they make no real sense at all, preferring instead to juxtapose bizarre image, make elaborate puns, or provide glimpses into the social lives of inanimate objects. Songs like "Particle Man," "Snowball in Hell," "Purple Toupee" and "Chesspiece Head" [sic] are about exactly what their titles say they are − not that it helps very much.
"Birdhouse in Your Soul," one of the best songs from "Flood," is sung from the perspective of a blue canary-shaped nightlight, eternally vigilant and philosophical: "There's a picture opposite me of my primitive ancestry / that stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck-free. / Though I respect that a lot, I'd be fired if that were my job / After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts." TMBG's songs are full of similar offbeat, slightly twisted observations.
In "Don't Let's Start," the band's first real hit, they opine: "No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful. / Everybody dies frustrated inside and that is beautiful." In "Ana Ng," a tale of a cross-global love affair between two people who are unaware of each other's existence, they sing: "I don't want the world / I just want your half."
Onstage, they punctuated some of their wacky songs with equally off-the-wall instruments including two trumpets (played simultaneously by one of the Johns), an amplified metronome, and "the largest rental bass drum in the world." They also led the crowd in a hilarious "stadium concert sing-along," arms punching the air in time with the music, and chanting a mindless anthemic refrain. It seems unlikely that TMBG will become the next R.E.M. or U2, former college radio darlings that valued to mainstream accessibility and success and which are now capable of filling the large arenas. TMBG's highbrow, low-tech approach to live performance probably wouldn't adapt itself too well to the glitzy theatrical medium of an arena concert.
Which is just fine. And judging by their typical sarcasm and disdain for the conventions of rock 'n' roll, they're not too worried about it either. These goofballs are going to keep doing as they please, confusing and amusing those who would seek to classify them, and kicking musical sand in the faces of the jocks, hipsters, and bullies who terrorized them as kids.