by Nik Rainey
Depending on your personal prejudices, Then, the two-CD anthology of nearly everything They Might Be Giants waxed between '86 and '89, is either an embarrassment of riches or simply an embarrassment. Johns Flansburgh and Linnell arrived in the dour pop climate of the time with clever whimsy to burn, nurtured on a diet of smartass tunesmithery (Costello, XTC, Hitchcock), quirkaholic basement-tapeheads (R. Stevie Moore, Jad Fair, Daniel Johnston) and a walloping dose of goofy dada theatrics (Bonzo Dog Band). They're the guys who stayed up too late on school nights to catch Letterman (back when he was on the 12:30 tip) and drove their peers to distraction by quoting Monty Python sketches verbatim in the middle of trig class. They're the social misfits who most everybody liked but nobody figured would go anywhere once their mortarboards plummeted back to Earth. Hmmm... sounds like somebody I know whose pants I'm wearing. No wonder I have such a soft spot for TMBG - their success is the vicarious vindication for the drama club hipster/dork in all of us. Hey, everybody! Two more jumped the fence! Run! Run like the wind! Okay... run like a girl. See if I care.
From the start, TMBG were an affront to the prevailing winds that still blow a chill through rock 'n' roll; it probably needs not be said that anybody who doesn't take their plop culture with a dash of sodium need not apply, tight-assed, self-important snobs that you are. (Don't worry, kids, we lost 'em in the first paragraph. The clubhouse is safe.) They flaunted their dorkdom proudly, from the accordion-heavy arrangements and the inside-joke titles ("Youth Culture Killed My Dog," "Shoehorn With Teeth") to their adenoidal singing voices and the name of the band itself (taken from a film where George C. Scott plays a guy who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes - if that ain't a classic nerd fantasy, then I'm Robert Christgau's red grading pen). Their debut album stakes their claim right out of the box - the very first lines of the very first song ("Everything Right Is Wrong Again") explain chaos theory in terms of the Lucy and Desi movie The Long Long Trailer. (Take that, Stephen Hawking! Hey, why isn't he fighting back?) From there, they blow through a stack of ideas like a pair of ritalin-deprived prodigies after a Nick at Nite binge, piling tiny ditty on tiny ditty 'til you laugh, are annoyed, wanna kill, then finally submit to giddiness. (If anyone's written a better song about Marvin Gaye and Phil Ochs getting married, call me.)
Lincoln (named after their Massachusetts hometown), which followed a couple of years later, is more of the same with a little extra polish and the first hints of social commentary ("Purple Toupee," for example, is a jumbled, reductive take on the sixties with lines like "I remember the year I went to camp/ I heard about some lady named Selma and some blacks/ Somebody put their fingers in the President's ears/ It wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's wax") and a couple of adroit pop classics ("Ana Ng" and the string-wrapped "Kiss Me, Son Of God") to boot. In addition, there's a raft of B-sides, EP-only tracks, and previously unreleased numbers from their Dial-A-Song archives. That's seventy-two itty-bitty tunes in all, which for all but the fanatic is far too much wimp-wit to gulp down in one sitting. In the '90s, they got themselves a real band, started writing serious songs to counterbalance the ones about lightbulbs, and, truthfully, aren't nearly as much fun as they used to be. And even a little of the vintage stuff goes a long way. But even so, as long as there are people who occasionally need to relieve the tension of the big, bad world by wearing giant cardboard cut-outs of William Frawley over their heads, there will always be a place for these piquant little Giants.