They Might Be Giants celebrate rock and roll stupidity
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., May 12, 2002) – There are bands that rock harder, more profoundly and more transcendently, but it would be hard to imagine a more intellectually entertaining rock concert than the one They Might Be Giants staged at Mass MoCA on Saturday night.

The creative masterminds of the group are John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who for the past 20 years have amassed an impressive body of witty, literate pop and rock songs that revel in their own eclecticism while standing as individual bits of cultural commentary.

In the past, these songs that work so well on recordings haven’t always successfully made the transition to the stage, where they either fell flat by being too parodic of a genre that is already a parody of itself – call it the Spinal Tap syndrome – or they simply didn’t work as well as the first time because you already got the joke.

What the new, improved They Might Be Giants have come up with is a better context from which to deliver their screwball versions of pop arcana. Delicately balancing the line between sincerity and parody, the group -- which now includes three virtuosic musicians on guitar, bass and drums in addition to the two Johns – heightens the dramatic impact of its music, renders its songs faithfully but with room for improvisation, and adds an element of variety show borrowed from the TV culture to which so much of its music is indebted.

Thus, at one point the band left drummer Dan Hickey and Flansburgh alone on the stage, with Flansburgh egging on Hickey to play drum solos in the style of certain artists, including Grand Funk Railroad, Buddy Rich, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Animal of the Muppets, and Stevie Wonder, pre- and post-1984.

At another point, all attention was focused on one of those high-priced designer radios sitting atop an amplifier. Flansburgh turned the dial to catch a signal, and whenever he found a song he and the band immediately started to play along with it. Unfortunately, as Flansburgh pointed out, radio is a “vast wasteland” and there was almost nothing to tune in. But even that was a point worth making.

Not that the show was all shtick. The group plowed through dozens of its fan favorites from throughout its career, from the peppy ode to a nightlight, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” to an aptly-timed “I Palindrome I,” the first line of which (“Some day mother will die/And I’ll get the money”) made for an ironic Mother’s Day gift.

The group played plenty of tunes off more recent albums like last year’s excellent Mink Car,” including the new-wavish ode to hairdos, “Bangs,” which contains the immortal rhyme, “Bangs/Above your eyes your hair hangs,” and “Man It’s So Loud in Here,” a parody of Eurodisco replete with programmed drum track and vintage-1970s disco ball.

Rock music is tired, and there are few performers who can convincingly entertain audiences for two hours without some sense of irony or without succumbing to self-indulgence. They Might Be Giants have chanced upon just the right note of irony – not so overarching that it pulls the rug out from under them, and neither so smug that the whole thing becomes an exercise in snobbish superiority.

Rather, in what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best concerts of the year, they celebrated the giddy joy that the communal party music can bring without sacrificing the sense of wonder at how stupid it so often is.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 14, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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