- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

If the Phi Beta Kappa Society sponsored a rock music program, the students would come out looking something like They Might Be Giants. John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the principal duo of TMBG, make rock safe for bookworms and, lately, with 2002’s “No!” children.

Not a few youngsters were seen at the hips of their parents Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club, watching, as Mr. Flansburgh put it, the Giants “deliver music with sports energy.”

Er … not quite.

After making a grand operatic entrance, the two singing Johns (Mr. Flansburgh on guitar, Mr. Linnell on keyboards) were joined by three Dans (Dan Miller on guitar, Dan Weinkauf on bass, Dan Hickey on drums) and proceeded into a funk jam.

Doing his best hip-hop impression, Mr. Flansburgh, thickly built and bespectacled, pogo stick-ed around like Ludacris. Which is, well, ludicrous.

Irony is the Giants’ meal ticket; the smirks on their faces are permanent. The closest they got to sentimentality Tuesday was on the lovey-dovey “New York City,” but even that was laced with acid humor. (“Everyone’s your friend in New York City.”)

For more than 20 years, the Giants have kept a faithful cult audience that can withstand peppy post-punk disquisitions on the nuclear physics of the sun (“Why Does the Sun Shine”) and songs that all but brag of high vocabulary skills (“I Palindrome I”).

Mr. Flansburgh and Mr. Linnell are a little like toddlers who keep their fingers in their noses long after the family has stopped laughing. “Play some music,” one fan cried out as the Johns dragged on the between-song repartee a tad too long.

Don’t misunderstand: The drollery often worked, especially when it was unscripted. When one fan yelled, “Is this a kids’ show?” Mr. Linnell quickly thought up the perfect riposte: “How old are you?” Pitching a mock fit about monitor feedback, Mr. Flansburgh said, “Can you tell we’re doing our Ryan Adams impression?” Ouch.

And now that Mr. Flansburgh has mentioned it, the VIP balcony section at the 9:30 Club does look a little like a Supreme Soviet council.

There’s something kinkily admirable about a band — the geniuses over at Pixar Animation have the same talent — that can gently glide smart humor over the heads of children. Just when you think a song such as “Robot Parade” can’t get any sillier, the Giants sneak in a quirky sense of poetry: “There’s electric cars / There’s electric trains / Here comes a robot with electric brains.”

There was nothing gentle, though, about the gallows humor of “Dig My Grave,” an irresistible polka-punk vamp with Mr. Linnell on accordion: “Every time I look in your eyes / I see St. Peter wave.”

As hard as it is to believe today, They Might Be Giants were popular briefly on MTV, with videos for songs such as “Ana Ng,” heard Tuesday. Then came the grunge wave. The Giants’ brand of clever pop fell out of fashion and has never really recovered.

It was only natural, then, for the Giants to pitch an album such as “No!” to children. As the culture’s collective IQ declines, it’s left to the next generation to appreciate a band like this.

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