They Might Be Giants (but they are definitely geniuses)

Crikey, April 24, 2013
by W H Chong

I love: a band that rhymes "drums" and "criticism"; and "Not to put too fine a point on it / Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet."

The first rhyme is from Doctor Worm: "I like to play the drums, I think I’m getting good, But I can handle criticism"; the second from Birdhouse in your Soul, both also song titles to treasure.

They were written by the two Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell) of They Might Be Giants, indie since 1982. I loved their second and third albums, Lincoln (named for their hometown) and Flood, and was disappointed by their fourth, Apollo 18, which was in...1992. I did see them when they came out a dozen years ago, and I think it was fine but not memorable. I had anticipatory doubts but last night the Corner in Richmond they were utterly winning.

A packed standing crowd, I’m guessing 85% men and 100% geek. Specs, caps and college gear, thirty-, forty- and fiftysomething. The Johns are in their early 50s though they present at least ten years younger. Constant Gardener arrived late from yoga as John F was doing a robot joke routine through a robotic mike filter...Robots tell infallible comedy they call this a thinker...I don’t want to spoil it. Here it is: What has eight arms and kills its girlfriend?...Squid Vicious. [drum splat]

(The phrase Undergrad Baroque crossed my mind as a description odf their mode but that suggests smartarserry; TMBG shares a crtain obliqueness if not opacity, but theirs is a shining wit.)

The reason I had doubts is I am not familiar with any of their last 20 years work apart from their delightful theme for Malcolm in the Middle ("Boss of Me"). And theirs are lyrics you need to have read on the page to "hear" when sung (like many bands I guess, except the wordplay is so intense it’d be a loss not to get it). But they surprised me with their verve: they rocked. Natural tunesmiths and extremely clever with their tempo and beats they had the nerdy crowd jigging and yelling. They would be pop kings except for their brains: too big.

No point talking about their songs, but look up "Anna Ng" and "Birdhouse," if you are not familiar, both of which they played (though you will need the lyric sheet: "Anna Ng"'s are remarkable). What they also did was to play with the crowd. At one point John F (the one with glasses and beard) pointed a flashlight into the crowd to divide us for a competition. At a signal he had one side pumping their right arms and shouting: People! People! People!. The other side alternately raised left arms and shouted: Apes! Apes! Apes! At the end John F proclaimed the winners to be..."People!" And adding, "It was fixed!"

Their relation to the crowd is fantastic. They put on a Show. It was Great.