They Might Be Giants Blends Fun Sounds with Serious Words

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 8, 2011
by Rege Behe

John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants make up one of the more eclectic and innovative duos of the past 30 years. Their songs are marked by a playful musicality, even if the lyrics encompass dark or serious themes.

The only problem comes from being so good at what they do. While recording their new album "Join Us," every song had to meet Linnell and Flansburgh's high standards.

"In some ways, it might be a breath of fresh air if we were ripping some other band off at this point," Linnell jokes. "But nobody wants to hear us retreading our old material. Particularly now that we're in our advanced years. Why would somebody want to buy that?"

They Might Be Giants performs on Wednesday at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

Linnell says that at this point in the group's career, it's almost impossible to break new ground. But at least one song on "Join Us" is like nothing else in the band's catalog. "Cloisonne" sounds like a collaboration between Tom Waits and Frank Zappa, carnival-like horns and keyboards punching up subtle percussion and clever lyrics about a man who practices an ancient technique for decorating metal.

"It was a great moment when John Flansburgh sent me the demo for 'Cloisonne,' " Linnell says. "I felt that was a signal he had come up with a clear idea and direction for us. That was kind of like the signal for us to step up our game, that this was something different."

"Join Us" is the duo's first album for grown-ups since 2007. But the band has been far from idle, releasing a trio of kid-oriented CDs for Disney that gave the band a presence in an alternative musical universe. They Might Be Giants became the musical equivalent of the television show "Pee Wee's Playhouse," writing songs directed to children that adults enjoyed as much as or more than their kids did.

And while the tone of songs about ABC's, numbers and science, obviously, is different from new songs "Can't Keep Johnny Down" and "Three Might Be Duende," it's not like the duo is going from English to Latin.

"There's a common thread between the two," Linnell says. "But one of the things that's more difficult about writing songs for adults that became obvious was the Disney records were so heavily themed that it gave us a strong foothold. You know you're going to write songs about letters of the alphabet. Whereas, with the grown-up songs, we were actually writing from scratch, and it's a harder challenge."

They Might Be Giants did start out as a band for adults, although Linnell says he and Flansburgh merely were writing songs "we both liked that didn't have any filter."

"The difference with the kids songs is we had to write songs the Disney corporation thought were appropriate," Linnell says.

But he quickly adds that Disney was incredibly generous, and the idea the corporation is controlling to Nth degree wasn't at true.

"Maybe it's because we were a little bit under the radar," Linnell says. "Maybe it would have seemed counterproductive for them to dictate what a They Might Be Giants album for children would sound like. I think they sensed we knew what we were doing."