They Might Be Giants have been caught up in kiddy-rock for the past decade, winning a Grammy for their trouble, but their first album for grown-ups in four long years finds this oddball band from Brooklyn back in their best eclectic and lyrically hilarious form.
"Join Us," with its generous 18-song program of impossibly catchy tunes and geekily witty words of wisdom has even scored on the charts, and John Flansburgh and John Linnell find themselves resurfacing from the adult-cult underground for the first time since mid-90s post-grunge crowded them off the playlists of MTV and modern rock radio.
"I feel like we've made lots of good records, but I'm grateful that it's doing so well," Flansburgh said in a recent phone interview from his Catskill Mountains hideaway. "We're like No. 11 on CMJ. We debuted on Billboard at No. 31, the highest chart position we've ever debuted at, you know?"
It's been a long time coming, this fresh brush with commercial success — at least as far as their music for mature audiences goes. Flansburgh and Linnell have known each other since their Lincoln, Mass., childhoods. They went through high school together and played music in separate bands, both influenced by the punk-rock explosion of the mid-to-late '70s.
In 1981, they formed TMBG together, moved to Brooklyn and began writing short, snappy songs influenced by their love for punk and new wave, and filtered through their own subversive and fun-loving sensibilities. Thus came titles such as "Put Your Hand in the Puppet Head," "(She was a) Hotel Detective" and "Don't Let's Start."
They quickly built a sizable cult following and eventually became the very vanguard of pre-grunge alternative music in the late '80s, inventing "Dial-a-Song," which was nothing more than cheap answering machine in Flansburgh's modest New York apartment, intended as an outlet for their prolific output of tunes.
These guys were writing lines like "everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful," and setting them to music that made the listener feel good about life somehow. They eventually landed a contract with indie label Bar / None and released their self-titled album debut in 1986. It became a college radio hit, as did the 1988 follow-up, "Lincoln" and their 1990 major-label debut on Elektra, "Flood," which went gold and helped heighten their MTV visibility with videos for "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."
Even after their run in the mainstream dried up, their faithful cult following hung in with them as Flansburgh and Finnell continued to turn out highly imaginative and whimsical music distinguished by stunning and intricate guitar and keyboard arrangements and unique, unpredictable song structures.
It wasn't surprising that in 2002, their whimsy would lead them to experiment with children's music — or "kid-rock" if you will — with the album "No!" There were still grown-up albums in between, but more kids stuff followed in 2005 with "Here Come the ABCs" and in 2008 with the Grammy-winning "Here Come the 123s," both on the Disney label.
"The family stuff was sort of kind of threatening to take over our lives just because it was like this unquenchable beast, you know?" Flansburgh said. "There was a lot of interest ... (The kids' albums) just do very well. They're different projects, you know? They're for television. The second you enter the world of television you kind of have like a Saturn V rocket blast to your back."
But the unexpectedly enthusiastic response to "Join Us" is something else again. The summery pop single "Can't Keep Johnny Down," the nerve-wired fuzz of "You Probably Get that a Lot," the punk-propelled "When Will You Die" and the anthemic "Judy Is Your Viet Nam" are the kinds of tunes that stick in the listener's head and aren't easily forgotten.
"You know, we've been doin' what we've been doin' for a long time, and periodically things sort of inexplicably explode," Flansburgh said. "And I wish we had a better gauge of why or when things are gonna start going our way. But at this moment, all of a sudden the roller coaster ride is starting again. So it's very exciting. It's weird."
Fans can catch the wild, weird roller coaster ride when it roars through Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom on Sunday. Be there. It might be big.