They Might Be Giants

Creem, May 1992
by Adam Bresnick

Just before setting out on the first leg of the "Don’t Tread on the Cut-Up Snake World Tour 1992," They Might Be Giants' guitarist John Flansburgh remembers the band's rocketsled world tour of 1990. "We did 170 shows in the space of a year, and when we got back home we were pretty crispy."

Taking a well-deserved hiatus from the rigors of the road in 1991, Flansburgh and accordionist collaborator John Linnell wrote and recorded the 38 (or so) tracks that comprise the new TMBG record, Apollo 18 (Elektra). Linnell explains, "Apollo 17 was the last real space trip. Apollo 18 would be the next one, and it seemed like we should be in the swiveling captain's chairs on the next moon mission, if anyone got to be. So we strapped ourselves in and we’re waiting for lift-off." In the meantime, NASA has chosen to honor Brooklyn's conceptual pop pair as the official rock band for the 1992 International Year of Space in order "to help create awareness in the 17 space nations," as the press release has it. With some luck, next year it'll be Linnell and Flansburgh turning flips in mid-air aboard the space shuttle as a prelude to yet another sleeper of a Super Bowl . . .

Pals since their junior high school days in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Flansburgh and Linnell share an endearingly quirky sense of humor that immediately punches through in their music, whether on pop tunes like "Birdhouse In Your Soul" or "Don't Let's Start," (the former a top-10 hit in England which TMBG had the pleasure of lip-synching on Top of the Pops), or warped tunelets like "Minimum Wage" and "Spider," ditties that seem to come straight from the cultural unconscious. Unlike the songs of many would-be oddball bands, TMBG's songs sound wholly uncontrived-you might say they’re organically weird. "I don't think we have any conception about what aspect of what we do makes us sell records," says Flansburgh. "It’s not so formulaic that we can say, 'There, that's what it is.' When we’re making records we’re working with the same mentality that Humble Pie did: album tracks! The art-rock concept lives on in what we’re doing." Linnell elaborates, "We’re trying to make records that we like. Every single thing that we put on the records is something that we’re really into. That’s the basic guideline. Luckily it’s a formula that attracts other people."

Most attractive (to these ears, at least) of the many ravishing tracks on Apollo 18 is "Fingertips," a spliced-together sequence of 20 "choruses from songs that don’t exist." Linnell describes it as TMBG's version of a K-Tel TV ad that offers a one-time-only collection of famous hits, with the difference that these hits come from some alternate pop universe, a universe in which mysterious whispers quickly give way to syrupy heart attacks, which in turn quickly give way to the parodic wanderings of a Morrissey clone down a darkened corridor. This is what sound bites were meant to be.

It’s doubtful that TMBG will be playing "Fingertips" on stage in it's entirety during the "Don’t Tread on the Cut-Up Snake World Tour 1992," but they’ll be playing most everything else they or you might imagine, and they’ll do it with infectious, raging humor. And though the national space budget has seen cutbacks as of late, it just may be that Apollo 18 will finally blast off for the moon with the release of TMBG's new record. Stranger things have happened.

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