Last night my daughter posted a picture on Instagram with the caption, “Thanks for being the only tolerable music on my mom’s ipod when I was 5” over a picture of They Might Be Giants. We’d just returned from seeing the band live at the Fillmore, and I was touched, because I thought there was NOTHING on my ipod that she liked.
The remarkable thing wasn’t just that she loved the show, but that her experience of seeing them live was so close to my first time seeing them, at the Kennel Club, on Divisidero, in 1986. That time they wore—and sold—fezzes during the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” an unexpected cover if ever there was one, and we fell down laughing during their rendition of “The Sun is A Mass (Of Incandescent Gas),”a song lifted from an insert in one of those Golden Book Encyclopedias which were the staple of all our childhoods.
That sense of wonder, silliness, and charm was exactly what I know my daughter felt during the Giants show at the Fillmore when, in the middle of their set, they unexpectedly played the song “Bills Bills Bills” by Destiny’s Child—that is, transforming and embracing a song that she associates with being a little girl. By exhibiting it in this other incarnation, through guys and guitars (her least favorite combination), they put music itself on display as the actual magic trick that it really is.
They couldn’t have done anything to please her more…I mean, until they did, by interjecting Sia’s “Chandelier” into “Particle Man,” (an impromptu moment inspired, apparently, by the actual chandeliers in the auditorium). It reminded me of so many deep moments in my own past, of U2 folding “Alison” into “Bad,” or the Afghan Whigs suddenly segueing from “Faded” into “The Boys of Summer,” of a mashup I once heard of the Breeder’s “Cannonball” with the song “Wabash Cannonball.” Such moments can be so uplifting; they send your brain into some kind of Connect-4 slot machine of memories, to a place where music can literally inhabit every pore of your past. At its best, a song by the Giants can make the sonic experience into a sort of stream of consciousness novel, so that you go from thinking about the band in front of you, to thinking about bands that you’d seen on that stage before, to thinking about the meaning of life, and finally, to how saxophones remind you of Lisa Simpson and Bruce Springsteen and that one hit song by Gerry Rafferty, thus forcing you to recall what it was like to hear music go from being in the hands of beard old British men and into the hands of people like the Giants John Flansburgh and John Linnell, that were young and accessible and funny and authentic, that were people that I actually knew.
Because that’s what happened. In the mid-1980s I lived in a four story Victorian that was a little bit famous because it was the cover shot of a coffee table book called ‘Painted Ladies.” The building was full of shenanigans and rock bands, it featured a rotating cast of six roommates, and we rented it from an older guy who was a singer in a Rolling Stones cover band that, astonishingly, still plays around town today. Early in my tenure there a guy named Bill knocked on my door for all the world like an old traveling encyclopedia sales person, and handed me a record by a band called They Might Be Giants.
In fact, he was a friend of a friend of my sister, and he’d heard I wrote about music—which I did, two paragraphs a time for 10$ a pop, for the Bay Guardian, where I also (hand me my cane, children!) typeset two days a week.
Those were simpler times you see—so simple that I was able to make rent on that little amount of work—and I played said record instantly, not having yet been overrun with product by the six major labels which would soon be sending me 24,000 new releases a year in cardboard mailers that would end up making our recycling bin a huge problem every week. I loved the record the minute I heard it, especially the song “Don’t Let Start,” which it’s spelt out chorus: “do I need apostrophe T need this torture?”
No band likes to be called quirky, a word that surely has been applied to TMBG more than any other. But to me they aren’t; indeed, they aren’t even funny or comic or nerdy, despite having an audience that can shout out the 14th president of the United States without resorting to google. To me, they are simply nonpareil. I am not joking when I say that I believe that “Birdhouse In Your Soul” stands as one of the best songs of the 20th century, alongside giants like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “What A Wonderful World” and “Summertime” and “Thunder Road.”
Like those songs, which meld sunny thoughts with an unstoppable melodic poignancy, They Might Be Giants actually have their dark side. “I use my outside voice because I have no choice,” they sing on their newest LP I Like Fun, and a similar risible tension, lying somewhere between tunefulness and ire, pervades songs like “Bluebeard’s Wife,” in which the murdered remains of one of that pirate’s victims reflects on the ways she should have conducted her relationship with him, or “Lake Monsters,” which ends with the observation that there’s no hypnosis like a mass hypnosis—“because a mass hypnosis isn’t happening.” Oh isn’t it?
I Like Fun continues an impressive streak for a 30 plus year old band, as did their performance at the Fillmore, that is, by pleasing both my daughter and I. Have you ever thought that the reason so many bands have slumps or get boring as they age is because they only have a certain amount of words and notes and ideas to use, and they’ve used them up? They Might Be Giants store of the same is seemingly unlimited. I mean, think about it. Most pop songs are about love and loss, emo-y shit like that. But if you can write a song about the eternal soul masquerading as a child’s nightlight, then you are simply never going to run out of material.