The Nerd Rock Longevity of They Might Be Giants

Music Baeble, April 30, 2015
by Don Saas

One of the first songs in They Might Be Giants' career spanning set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Sunday night (the latest in a monthly residency the band has set up at the venue this year) was the Mink Car favorite "Older," an existentialist examination of the constant, creeping approach of time and our own mortality. In 2001 when the album was released, it was a wink & a nod to the band's recent ascendancy to middle age. Sunday night it struck a different tone.

The last time I saw They Might Be Giants live, it was 2012, and they were at the end of their Join Us tour. The show was at Terminal 5; I was there on a date; and I was too far back to really see the band beyond being clear figures on the stage. I was maybe 3 rows of people back Sunday night. And as John Linnell sang "You're older than you've ever been/And now you're even older/And now you're older still," I could see the gray in John Flansburgh's hair. I don't want to call They Might Be Giants the elder statesmen of nerd rock -- they're only in their mid-50s -- but seeing the exiting middle-age statesmen of college radio and nerd rock that night hit home the monumental longevity of the Johns' careers, and the indelible influence that band has played in the lives of witty, literate pop-rock bands for the last 33 years.

Sunday was the unofficial record release show for the band's 17th (let that number sink in) full-length release, Glean , as well as part of the commemoration of the re-activation of the band's long-dormant Dial-A-Song service (a phone service where the band shared new music back in the 80s that's been reborn as a new weekly song on their website each week). It was a packed house despite construction on the L train -- which Flans cracked jokes about the whole evening as stragglers made their way into the show. The band played two full sets (sans an opener), and the intimacy of the Music Hall compared to Terminal 5 made it feel like I was seeing They Might Be Giants for the first time all over again.

A They Might Be Giants concert is less of a concert and more of a performance art piece that happens to primarily center around music. Although there was sadly no appearance by They Might Be Giants' puppet alter-egos, the Avatars of They, Flans used the pretext of the Dial-A-Song service to engage in comedic fake phone calls with John Linnell that had the audience roaring with laughter. The duo have been together for three decades now, and their chemistry, rhythm, and repartee is nearly unmatched.

But, it's still a concert, and fortunately, They Might Be Giants are exceptionally talented musicians. It's easy to forget this when their most famous songs are "so clever it almost becomes aggravating" pop-rock numbers, but They Might Be Giants have their roots in post-punk and more experimental rock. And in a live setting, the band wails on their instruments. It's impossible to hear "Ana Ng" and not notice the punchy guitar riffs and hooks that They Might Be Giants make seem effortless, but at the Music Hall, it became impossible to not be impressed by their musicianship and their ability to lose themselves in grooveable improvisation.

They Might Be Giants are the band of hip parents and their kids everywhere so it was no surprise that the show was an unprecedented cross-section of all ages -- minus kids who might know the band for their children's music because kids weren't allowed at this performance. And there's little question as to why. Although They Might Be Giants spread their sound around a variety of genres -- rock, pop, punk, world music, synthier stuff -- their hyperliterate lyricism and sincerity is timeless. And whether you heard Flood on college radio in 1990 or discovered the band because of Tiny Toons, there's something in They Might Be Giants that can speak to you.

Between the well-received new music and beloved tracks like "Dr. Worm," "Birdhouse In Your Soul," and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," Sunday's show was an undeniable success. And it's all the more impressive because for the last thirty years, there's been no break for They Might Be Giants. They just keep on creating one great record after another, and that's an act almost without equal in modern alternative music. They Might Be Giants, we salute you.