Live: They Might Be Giants at Joe’s Pub


Photos by Nicole Ankowski

They Might Be Giants
Joe’s Pub
May 16

By Rob Harvilla

Note: If you actually had sex while in high school nothing contained herein is going to make the slightest bit of sense to you.

Listen. No one’s trying to sell you on the last (checks (Jesus Christ) 11 years of They Might Be Giants’ recorded output—after 1996’s direly underrated Factory Showroom, these dudes get spotty. “Prevenge” is one of my favorite TMBG songs of the past decade, and I haven’t even heard it. I just like the title. But “Am I Awake?” evokes glitchy insomniac paranoia better than anything on that Thom Yorke record, “Man It’s So Loud in Here” better evokes deadpan club-anthem vapidity than anything on that new Justice record, and seeing these gawky dudes live is still as oddly transcendent an experience as when you first heard “Particle Man” in junior high.

So they got a new album. The Else. Out in July. Except you can download it right now on iTunes. Very confusing. John Flansburgh (dude in the glasses, sired “Boss of Me”), commanding a gussied-up crowd at Joe’s Pub, improvises a little tune:

They Might Be Giants
Are playing the songs no one knows
From their new album

Tangent: When folks in the front row are singing along word-for-word with songs on an album sorta-released that day, thus clearly betraying the fact that they illegally downloaded the record weeks if not months ago, do you, the band, consider these people your biggest/best fans, or your shittiest? Do you take solace and pride in enthusiasm so rabid it compels them to steal your music?

For us law-abiding citizens unfamiliar with these tunes, we bob our heads politely to “I’m Impressed” (not really), “Take Out the Trash” (bitchin’ keyboards, very loud cowbell), “Climbing the Walls” (meh, as my fanatical TMBG fan brother would say), and “Careful What You Pack” (a tremendously disconcerting moment of evidently sincere tenderness). Midway through we’re thrown the bone of (checks (Jesus Christ) 1989’s “Ana Ng,” wherein John and John’s sardonic rapport shines anew—Flansburgh hits a bum note during his backing vocals on the last chorus, and Linnell (dude with the nasally voice, sired the next nine best-known TMBG songs) singing lead in that immensely appealing nasally tenor and manning his keyboard with his immensely appealing business-casual indifference, stops singing and just glances at him, with no trace of anger, malice, or even distaste—a totally underplayed and benevolent yikes. These dudes are like a tall glass of chocolate milk. And “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” as gawky and goofy and giddy and 40-year-old virginal an anthem as you could ever hope for, is 150 glasses. A thousand. A couple thousand. The crowd gets noticeably more excited. The band—the Johns, two Dans (guitar/bass), and a drummer whose name isn’t amusing enough to warrant mention—gets much much more excited.

I want to like The Else. This is in some ways a higher compliment than actually liking a record I wish I didn’t like. (The Best Damn Thing, for example.) A coupla tunes resonate at Joe’s—Flansburgh’s “The Shadow Government” and Linnell’s “The Cap’m” collide at the intersection of mildly catchy and mildly amusing. (The Dust Brothers produced this thing. Were you aware of this? Why didn’t you tell me this?) But the Johns/Dans/etc., more so than anyone listening, seem sensitive to the fact that the new songs are essentially commercial breaks between “She’s an Angel” (sweet), “Twisting” (politely raucous), “Meet James Ensor” (hilariously didactic), their joyous cover of Cub’s “New York City” (profoundly stirring), and most bizarrely, the 21-part mini-opera “Fingertips” (batshit insane).

Tangent: Top 5 “Fingertips” episodes:

5. “Come on and wreck my car.”
4. “Are you the guy who hit me in the eye?”
3. “Please pass the milk please.”
2. “I’ve found a new friend underneath my pillow.”
1. “What’s that blue thing doin’ here?”

The first lines of “The Cap’m” go

Do you think there’s somebody out there
Someone else
Who’s better than the one you’ve got
Well there’s not
There’s not

They’re talking about themselves. They Might Be Giants don’t do this as well as they once did, but despite your suspicions otherwise, no one ever came along and did it better. No one will. Not even them.

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