They Might Be Giants, Barbican review--genuine, authentic humour

Short songs and an oblique way of looking at the world bring levity

The Arts Desk, October 4, 2018
by Sebastian Scotney

The songs of They Might Be Giants have an irresistible way of combining the playful, the childlike and the absurd. The band’s major label debut album, Flood from 1990, which was most people’s entry point into their music, is full of quick-witted humour.

Songs from it such as “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul Not Constantinople” (a cover of the 1953 song from The Four Lads, and clearly in a lineage from “Puttin’ on the Ritz”) brought happy cheers of recognition from a willing audience in a packed Barbican last night.

The most madcap sequence of last night’s show consisted of the macabre break-up song “Twisting”, followed by “Fingertips”, a number which is made up of a collection of disjointed song fragments, and then one of the most surprising and ambiguous songs ever written, “Whistling in the Dark”. And what emotion did that welter of imagery and the sheer songwriting virtuosity leave with the listener? All I can say is that I found them bringing me to a state of helpless laughter and sheer joy: John Linnell and John Flansburgh are genuinely and irresistibly funny.

There is a paradox about that. As John Flansburgh has said: “Dread, death, and disappointment are all evergreens for us… and part of what makes it work is that melody and music-making, in general, is so life-affirming that it seems to immunise everyone from the initial meaning of even the most dire lyric. It’s like the catharsis is baked into the song-making.”

Their live show also has humour in the presentation, and clever ways of bringing the audience on board, making us complicit in their efforts. After we had all risen to our feet for “Racist Friend” – a song which now seems all too prescient and relevant –Flansburgh worked the audience brilliantly: “Don’t sit down yet. We’re expecting you to be just as enthusiastic about these new songs. Let’s have some REAL FAKE EMOTION.” And that trick didn’t just work perfectly for the next two new songs, it set a tone where the audience would follow every instruction, relish every paradox. We were even persuaded to buy in to the counter-intuitive chop-logic of the way they ended their final encore: “Hey, Mr DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal“ brought the show to a close with a fade to silence.

TMBG’s songs are normally short and they have secco endings. It is as if the songs say what they have to say and then abruptly take their leave. In their two-set programme, the band got through around 30 of them. The songs are often so harmonically mobile and tricksy, and the way in which the two men with their astonishingly indistinguishable nasal-timbred voices intone the lyrics is so much at the core of what they do; the opportunities for instrumentalists to stretch out and improvise are few and far between and are used to give contrast.Those opportunities, however, do serve as a reminder that TMBG are a top-flight instrumental band as well. Bassist Danny Weinkauf is a lively presence. He gets right into the mood of some songs, and can sometimes even be seen to pogo. Drummer Marty Beller delivers energy, precision and creativity. Guitarist Dan Miller can oscillate between subtlety and full-on rock deity with ease. He also switches to keyboards. Trumpeter and valve trombonist Curt Ramm brings his extrovert personality to the party, with screaming Maynard Ferguson top notes to make the point. The multi-instrumental skills of John Linnell (accordion, Keyboard/synth and beguiling contra-alto clarinet) are highly impressive.

TMBG are often admired for being ahead of their time. The way they have innovated and stuck with those innovations is impressive. They started Dial-a-Song on an analogue answering machine in 1985, permitting just one caller at a time to access their newest song. That venture has come of age in the era of streaming and is stil going. Culturally too, that geeky fascination of contrasting the real and the virtual world and playfully examining the discontinuities and absurdities is now much more widespread. I remember “Birdhouse” and its curious imagery coming out at around the same time the novelist Nicholson Baker was starting to ruminate about escalators and shoelaces. TMBG have stuck with their oblique ways of looking at the world, and are all the more valuable for that.

I had one quibble, the sound quality, and therein lies something of an irony. Flansburgh often talks about the production values TMBG have pursued with such dedication in their recorded output. Frankly, the sound of the band at full tilt last night, and particularly in the first half, was disappointingly crude, cluttered and amateurish.

That won’t be my main memory, though. I find TMBG’s combination of wide-eyed innocence and flickeringly brilliant imagery irresistible. Humour and levity are possibly the hardest things of all to make effective in music. TMBG are authentically, genuinely funny, and they carried their delighted audience with them expertly and brilliantly.