The time has come to accept the disquieting but undeniable fact that the single most important song to my adolescent development was “Particle Man.” Everyone has a version of this story, the baptismal early-teenage epiphany triggered by a single, unexpected, epochal piece of music. Decades later, you can still recall the exact circumstances: where you were, who you were with, the quality of the light, etc. The transformative moment when “everything turns to color,” as a stoned Don Draper would put it. But everyone’s soundtrack is unique, and as badass/sexy/etc. as it’d be now to retroactively cite mine as, like, “Waiting Room” or “Bring the Noise” or “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” or whatever, in this particular case, no, no, it was “Particle Man.” A fucking polka. Honestly.
Triangle Man hates Particle Man
They have a fight
Maybe it’s not so unique, though; They Might Be Giants have this effect on people, a safe harbor of unrepentant geekery, a Pentecostal flame of inspiration that grants pimply-faced outcasts halos in the shape of beanie propellers. They make being defiantly uncool look and sound unbelievably cool, is what I’m saying. Which explains why the line outside the swank new West Village spot (Le) Poisson Rouge is wrapped halfway around the next block on Saturday night despite percussive gusts of wind and rain, the longest and most enthusiastic sellout concert queue I’ve seen in months: Tonight, as part of their ongoing monthly residence there, TMBG will be playing 1990’s majestic Flood in its entirety. “The landmark record!” bellows the radio DJ who introduces the band. “The record that put them on the map! The record that changed our lives!” We all laugh. That might be funny. But it’s not a joke.
They Might Be Giants (the Brooklyn duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh) exemplified the McSweeney’s/Daily Show aesthetic—arch, whimsical, erudite, hilarious, viciously smart, gleefully goofy—years before it actually existed, and eons before it was fully accepted. Their mischievously twisted pop creations (each its own little surrealist universe, even if it only lasts 90 seconds or so) came off as deviously catchy little ad jingles long before getting a tune in an iPod commercial was the only way bands could make any money, long before a great ringtone came to assume more cultural importance than a great album. “Particle Man” is just one of hundreds if not thousands of examples, a ludicrous but instantly endearing accordion-and-tuba-and-handclap shuffle, a blithe piece of nonsense that once soundtracked a particularly bizarre episode of Tiny Toons Adventures, but also soundtracked quite a few lives, from the looks of it. At one point, the band brings out a guest vocalist named David Driver, who’s wearing a T-shirt with an upper- and lowercase “D” on it, and somebody in the crowd yells out “Helvetica!” As in the font. We are among friends.
So here’s another Play a Great Album All the Way Through adventure, and both the pros and cons of this ascendant format are snapping into relief. A con: Reversing the logical flow of most rock concerts, albums tend to be understandably front-loaded, so you get the mega-jams right at the onset. “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” the inarguable highlight of both Flood and the band’s entire 22-year career, is an objectively perfect song, a raucous, silly, relentlessly upbeat ode to a blue-canary nightlight that tonight triggers robust bouts of joyful pogoing in our ranks. But things can’t help but peter out from there—”Road Movie to Berlin” is not exactly a triumphant set-closer.
A pro, though: In TMBG’s case, you get to hear the delightfully bizarre filler tracks pervasive on their best records, but rarely rolled out onstage. “Minimum Wage” consists of Flansburgh yelling “Minimum wage! Heeeyaaaa!” followed by a mighty whipcrack and 30 seconds of cheery, cheesy synthesizer retro-pop; it’s a shame they didn’t try to replicate the whipcrack live, but it’s a joy to hear again nonetheless. Backed as usual by a full band and (less usual) a horn section, the Johns mostly play it straight tonight, with only occasional, relatively light idiosyncrasies—subbing in a saxophone for the violin on the geography-obsessed klezmer jam “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”—popping up. “One of the things about performing a song over and over again is it can get shittier,” Flansburgh explains. “You can play it slower, and everyone will think you’re tired. You can play it faster, and completely destroy it.” Mercifully, with “Particle Man,” they do neither, dropping a little buoyant clapping interlude in there somewhere, but otherwise playing it straight and easy, with the casual autopilot detachment that bands get when they’ve been playing the same goddamn song for 18 years. But that only makes it more ridiculous, more bizarrely life-affirming.
The deep cut that hits hardest tonight is “We Want a Rock,” another accordion jammer, this one a sweet country-fried lope with typically flabbergasting lyrics: The chorus morphs from “Everybody wants a rock to tie a piece of string around” to “Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads.” Why does this speak so resoundingly to a confused, highly impressionable teenager, and what the hell is it saying? It’s simply that the Johns are dedicated, unapologetic, unwavering, and supremely confident in their commitment to irreverence. Or, as Linnell puts it in a cartoonishly pitch-shifted baritone on “Whistling in the Dark”:
There’s only one thing that I
know how to do well
And I’ve often been told that you only can do
What you know how to do well
And that’s be you
Be what you’re like
Be like yourself
Smirk all you like, but this is something a certain cast of human being desperately needs to hear. So tonight, (Le) Poisson Rouge hosts a raucous orgy of self-actualization, spilling over into the band’s second set, a conventional we’ll-play-whatever-we-want affair, including songs called “James K. Polk” and “The Sun Is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma.” Lately, TMBG have taken to making children’s albums, 2005’s Here Come the ABCs leading to this year’s Here Come the 123’s, a lucrative and logical endpoint for such an effortlessly childlike band. Remarkably, their songs for adults and their songs for children sound exactly the same: The tune about rogue number sevens invading your house and eating all your cake slides easily into their catalog of alleged adult-friendly fare. The big kids learn more from it than the little ones do.
They Might Be Giants play (Le) Poisson Rouge November 29