They Might Be Giants
Then: The Earlier Years
Though it's been 16 years since junior high pals John Flansburgh and John Linnell reunited in a Brooklyn apartment as the brilliantly annoying They Might Be Giants, they have yet to alter their haircuts, learn how to play a decent guitar solo, or commit themselves to a particular musical genre or straightforward show of emotion. More amazing, they've always carried off their pastiche of everything from polka to punk, conga to country, with an air of indifferent excess, as if they were just a couple of precocious kids screwing around with a paint-by-numbers kit. Who would have thought that this unpredictable novelty act, these geek artistes, would end up as one of the most durable outfits of the past couple decades?
Hindsight, of course, can help solve the weirdest riddles. For one thing, TMBG (who play Metro Tuesday and Wednesday) aren't quite as unpredictable as they'd like us to think. Though their albums are unmoored to either form or content, around them all there lingers a whiff of antiseptic folkie purism. True, they skewered the insular paranoia of a "Hide Away Folk Family" on their very first album, but TMBG's own folk ethic is much broader (and smarter). Consider their fascination with home taping, or their alienation from their own libidos, or their darned haircuts, and you'll recognize a kind of stoic and obsessive sensibility that puts their geek pop in the same class as Ricky Skaggs's pristine bluegrass, John Lee Hooker's grim Detroit blues, Mark E. Smith's one-riff punk. As different as they are stylistically, those performers all live by the title of another ditty on TMBG's first album: "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes."
Of course, thousands of other artists have been just as purist and it didn't stop them from passing into cultural oblivion. Hooker and Smith and (maybe) Skaggs have survived only because they each have a talent so fundamentally original that it wears like a force of nature. Though Linnell and Flansburgh have a remarkable God-given knack for both imitation and creation, in the end their gift isn't quite so monumental. Instead, their genius is in the way they combine their eclecticism with a skepticism that bears little resemblance to your typical rock 'n' roll sneer. They are driven not by youth rebellion or even bohemian disdain, but by a resigned, morbid pessimism whose highest truth is "This, too, will pass." Over the years, their best music has consistently made us aware of how fleeting and intangible a catchy tune really is, or a popular fashion, or a career. Of course, that morbid pessimism clashes with their refusal to change, but it's just one of many contradictions they've managed to live with. Long before Beck was even out of junior high, TMBG had already invented that fascinating, terminal paradox--the post-modern folkie.
TMBG's two latest releases show how this contradiction is fraying at both ends of their career. Then: The Earlier Years is a daunting 72-song, two-CD compilation of all their releases on their first label, Bar/None, plus several unreleased recordings from their quixotic Dial-a-Song project (a new song every day left on an answering machine at 718-387-6962). Factory Showroom is a new collection of studio tunes that continues a process of slow, occasionally painful growth started three years ago on John Henry.
As is natural with retrospectives, the cute packaging on Then cultivates a nostalgia for the group's long-gone innocent youth. Yet it's impressive how little the material has dated. Even the duo's coolest and most casual songs hold up far better than the earnest labors of most of their trendiest peers from the mid-80s (INXS anyone?). In the end, though, not even pomo folkies can escape unscathed by fashion and technology. The heart of the compilation is the group's first two full-length albums, They Might Be Giants (1986) and Lincoln (1988), each featured on a separate CD and each padded with a good 15 extra cuts. It's standard practice these days to make the most of a CD's hour-plus capacity, and perhaps the extra fixings help justify the rerelease of two albums that never went out of print in the first place. (The real reason for the compilation, of course, is that legal control of the material just reverted to Linnell and Flansburgh.) There was a time when TMBG's mission felt so radical that this kind of overkill might have killed off their nascent audience at the start. Yet today's fashions have come to embrace overkill so thoroughly that Then sold more than 5,000 copies in its first week.
Still, sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much--and especially so with art whose charm depends in part on geekdom. Back in 1988 I thought Lincoln was a decent record but a huge step down from the existential perfection of They Might Be Giants. Yet with all these extra cuts pulling them both out of shape, they sound like equally brilliant--and equally annoying--hodgepodges now. From the looks of the audience at a recent TMBG concert I saw on the east coast, however, their younger fans not only accept postmodern hodgepodges as the musical norm, but they have no sense of irony about treating TMBG just like regular rock stars.
To their credit, Linnell and Flansburgh have responded in kind. I doubt they thought they'd win a mass audience any more than I did, but now that they have, they're working it like they once worked a smaller, smugger crowd. Factory Showroom is their least fey--and most likeable--work in years.
It's not as if they've finally started writing in a single style or anything, but they have stepped back from the pomo relativism that once treated a ready-made throwaway as if it were as valuable as an original gem. This time even their tribute to a "Metal Detector" has a solid tune attached. Elsewhere, they risk flashing a little libido (on the opening cut "S-e-x-x-y"), though they hedge their bets with a cerebral coda. They also declare their love for straight-up pop rock in a cover of "New York City," a cute and earnest love song by Cub, a group of garage grrrls from Vancouver, and for Memphis soul on the grooving "Pet Name." Of course, they're careful to cover their tracks with the jazzbo nonsense of "Exquisite Dead Guy" and the 19th-century pop of "James K. Polk" and "I Can Hear You," the last recorded on a genuine Edison wax cylinder without any electricity. At this stage, it all feels practically mainstream. Fans of TMBG's strange days shouldn't fret, though: as Flansburgh and Linnell have always known, that feeling can't last forever.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of John Linnell and John Flansburgh (TMBG) by Eli Hershko, and album covers, "Factory Showroom" and "Then:The Earlier Years".