The biggest wave of They Might Be Giants’ music to hit the mainstream was in 1990 with the release of Flood. It’s been 10 years, and they still are going strong. But it took a lot of practice and innovation for TMBG to get where they are now.
TMBG is John Flansburgh and John Linnell. These two high school pals got together after college and recorded their first demos in the early 1980s. Aside from playing in the local New York venues, they started a service called “Dial-A-Song.” Fans could (and still can) call a number and listen to a random TMBG song from a Brooklyn based answering machine. This helped start their popularity. Fans established a personal connection with the band through this inventive approach.
TMBG’s name comes from the 1972 George C. Scott movie of the same title. (A film you should definitely check out.) The duo released their self-titled album in 1986 and received some recognition in 1989 with the album Lincoln. But Flood, the now platinum album, included the hits “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
TMBG has some of the most intelligent lyrics that I have ever encountered. They are not afraid to share their knowledge of art, history and science in song. “Meet James Ensor” is a song devoted to a painter from Belgium. I know I never would have encountered this artist if it weren’t for TMBG. “James K. Polk” is their token historical song. It discusses the president’s achievements while in office. And science teachers love “Why Does the Sun shine?” because this song is loaded with facts about the sun, which teachers can use as an aid in their lessons.
Aside from their lyrics, TMBG is able to connect each song with a catchy beat. I am still perplexed as to why they have not hit the mainstream in a huge way. Most of their songs are pretty short and have a beat that you just want to move to. They also incorporate many unusual instruments into their sound, such as accordion, saxophone and glockenspiel.
To record the song “I Can Hear You,” TMBG went to the Edison Laboratories and recorded the song without electricity. They used techniques similar to the one’s used to record music before electricity. This is a band that is not afraid of experimentation.
John Linnell, in addition to his work with TMBG, has recently ventured out on his own. He released his first solo album,State Songs, last year. This album continues to show his talent and creativity. Each song on the album is named after a state, yet none of them are actually about the states.
John Flansburgh has also had side projects. He has a band called Mono Puff and has directed music videos for Ben Folds Five, Frank Black and Harvey Danger.
With more than 11 albums (the latest, Long Tall Weekend, is available on MP3 format from e-music.com), They Might Be Giants have accomplished so much more than they had ever imagined. But they still continue to do more. They did the song “Dr. Evil” for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack. More recently they composed “Not the Boss of Me,” the theme song for the television show, Malcolm in the Middle. Expect the release of their first children’s album titled NO! in the winter of 2001.
They Might Be Giants. Fri., Nov. 24. 9 p.m. Theater of Living Arts. 334 South St.