They Might Be Giants slay Fastlane crowd

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by Jenifer Braun

 If Monty Python's Flying Circus had been a rock band, it might have sounded like They Might Be Giants.

A group that combines surrealist lyrics and a chirpy pop sound to create songs that sound like the nursery rhymes of an evil genius, They Might Be Giants is really John Linnell and John Flansburgh, childhood buddies and longtime residents of Brooklyn. Linnel plays the accordion, Flansburgh plays guitar.

The duo has garnered a large following among devotees of alternative pop, singing songs about Pavlov's dog, James K. Polk, the 11th U.S. president, and nonsensical subjects like a "Shoehorn with teeth." Sound weird? It is. TMBG has made a fairly successful career of bringing the bizarre to the masses in a way that would warm Salvador Dali's heart.

Gathered around a tour van with the words "They Might Be Incorprorated" emblazened on the side, New Jersey's alternative youth (outfitted in de riguer combat boots, backwards baseball caps and They Might Be Giants T-shirts) came out in force to the Fastlane in Asbury Park Saturday night to hear the two-man group, currently touring with a six-piece band in support of its fourth album, Apollo 18.

Audience enthusiasm for the duo, which has never had a major hit in the United States, ran high until the wee hours of Sunday morning, despite intense heat and a house so packed that would-be dancers were confined to jumping in time to the music like so many popping kernels of corn.

TMBG played most of the more uptempo songs from its new album, opening with "I Palindrome I," and continuing with "Dig My Grave," "She's Actual Size," "The Statue Got Me High" and "Mammal." This last song is actually a rock tune about what makes mammals different from other animals ("The red blood flows/Lacking nuclei/Through the large four-chambered heart/Maintaining the very high metabolism rate").

Also from the new album was "The Guitar," They Might Be Giant's alternate-lyrics version of the folk standard "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." ("Hush, my darling, be still my darling, the lion's on the phone").

Most of concert, however, consisted of favorites from TMBG's earlier albums, including "Particle Man," "Twisting (In The Wind)," and "Birdhouse In Your Soul," from 1990's Flood, along with "Purple Toupee," "Mr. Horrible," and "We Want a Rock" from Lincoln and "Don't Let's Start" from their self-named first album.

The back-up band sounded fine, providing a fuller sound to TMBG tunes like "Particle Man," which had been recorded very simply with vocals and accordion. The focus of the show, however, was on "the two Johns," as their fans persisted in calling them, who seemed slightly ill at ease with the crowd behind them on the Fastland stage.

"Hi, we're They Might Be Giants," Flansburgh announced after the first handful of songs. "And this is the . . . er . . . the They Might Be Giants Group, or whatever."

The night was full of great music and oxymoronic moments, as when Linnell whipped the young crowd to a frenzied pitch during a wicked solo . . . on the accordion. At many times the hall rocked with cries of "Is-tan-bul!" as the crowd urged TMBG to perform its dance-mix version of the 1953 Four Lads hit "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

During another concert highlight, Linnell announced that the band would take requests. As the house erupted into chaotic screams, he added "But we'll only take requests of songs we've never played before."

Nonplussed, the crowd calmed down and TMBG (possibly, but not necessarily, responding to a request) launched into a souped-up, corny, sax-laden version of Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind" that had the audience howling with laughter and brightening the dim Fastlane with hundreds of raised lighters.

After the band retired, Linnell and Flansburgh returned to the stage alone to encore with an extended, slow and psychedelic "Istanbul," during which the two experimented with the reverb on their sound system.

The delightful lunacy and originality of They Might Be Giants probably deserves more attention than it has garnered so far, for they are a musically tight and lyrically brilliant pair. It was good to see them receive the enthusiastic reception they deserved as the concert came to an end.

They Might Be Giants' Apollo 18 tour returns to the New Jersey area later this summer, with a Tuesday, Aug. 4 appearance at the Beacon Theatre in New York.