They Might Be Giants released its eponymous debut album in 1986. In turn, “Don’t Let’s Start,” the album’s best song, preceded my existence, my parents’ marriage, the Clinton presidency and just about everything else that has happened from 1987 onwards. It baffles me that this song is so distant, historically speaking, yet the first time I heard it it was as immediate and addictive as anything else I’d been listening to at the time. Sure, good pop songs have certain innate qualities and the best ones transcend space and time, but imitation has played as big of a role as ingenuity in the greater history of rock ‘n’ roll-era pop music, and They Might Be Giants is an incredibly difficult band to imitate.
So many different elements work in tandem to even begin to characterize or categorize the band’s music, and on top of all that there’s Dial-A-Song and The Avatars of They and the fragments of the amazing “Fingertips” suite, which was played in full at the 9:30 Club Saturday night. Linnell and Flansy may be weird/geeky/postmodern, but their music also exists in this vacuum, now in its 31st year of life, that is an utterly enjoyable space to inhabit. It is this space that allows “Don’t Let’s Start” to thrive alongside songs from this year’s “Nanobots.” In the same way, this space welcomes people who are my parents’ age and their kids and someday their grandkids. I wasn’t raised on They Might Be Giants, but if I ever procreate, my children will receive a thorough TMBG education.
To some extent, every They Might Be Giants album can be approached like a grab bag, and the band’s live show operates similarly. Saturday’s show was bookended by two of the band’s most well-known songs, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” but in between the band jumped all over the place. We got the joyous pastiche “The Guitar,” the starry-eyed “New York City” and the bass clarinet farts of “Cloisonné.” “Dr. Worm” sounded pretty good on the drums, and The Avatars of They snuck a Ted Cruz jab into “He’s Loco.” I don’t like “Nanobots” quite as much as 2011’s “Join Us,” but it still has its share of vital moments, such as “Circular Karate Chop” and its breakdown full of sensei wisdom. Flansy did most of the talking between songs, and he’s getting a tad Mike Love-esque with middle age, but he still comes across as far more goofy and self-aware than the squeakiest of the Beach Boys.
Thinking about the legacy of They Might Be Giants as reflected in live performance is even more interesting when considering what the band didn’t play on Saturday night. There was no “Particle Man” or “Experimental Film” or “Boss of Me,” and “Nanobots” lead single “Call You Mom” was absent as well. But throughout the grab bag was consistent cleverness and a commitment to a unique aesthetic that simultaneously travels through pop music’s history and freezes time altogether. The band can pull from the oddities without fail because ultimately they’re all pretty odd. They Might Be Giants may only be seen as a timeless band by those who are in the know, but I promise it is worth your while to take a moment and enter into the TMBG vacuum if you haven’t done so already. I can’t wait to go back.