by Jim Harrington
They Might Be Giants is just a phone call away. For the past 11 years, fans have been able to call the band's Dial-A-Song service and, for just the price of a toll call to Brooklyn, hear a short recording of the latest TMBG material.
Some of the 50 tracks currently playing on the line might end up on the band's next full-length record or EP. Who knows? By dialing (718) 387-6962, you might be privy to a sneak preview of the next big single, the next "Don't Let's Start" or "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." Or you might get--as I did during a recent call--"King of Wingo."
"That's a (messed) up little song," admitted TMBG's John Flansburgh. "'King of Wingo' is a minor effort, but it's got its charms. I don't think you'll be seeing it on a major label release anytime soon."
Even if they don't play "King of Wingo," there are still plenty of reasons to check out the band when they hit Palo Alto's The Edge on Thursday, March 13.
A multitude of reasons, actually.
They Might Be Giants, which took its name from an early 1970s George C. Scott movie, is a prolific band. Besides the plethora of unreleased material, the band's albums often contain more than 20 songs, and the group has an extensive collection of extended play mini-albums as well. Also, Flansburgh and his partner John Linnell--lovingly known by their fans as just "John and John"--have productive non-Giants music careers. It appears that the boys from Brooklyn never stop creating.
"I just wrote a song," Flansburgh said, confirming this hypothesis during a recent telephone interview. "It took me a couple of hours. But it's, like, really good."
No doubt their fans will agree. Through their intelligent and quirky pop recordings and more than 1,000 nights playing on the road, TMBG had built a passionate cult fan base and at times has hit the mainstream through MTV play and hit singles.
Some people turn out to see TMBG shows just for a rocking evening of hook-filled pop songs. Others, Flansburgh says, come out because they are obsessed with the band's lyrics. And there are a few folks who will probably visit The Edge on March 13 to just see what strange things the Giants' will pull next.
"We've got some special effects type of things that I don't want to spoil (the surprise)," he said. "We've actually just had a confetti cannon that we used in the show. It made an incredible mess."
After building its name with vocals, Flansburgh's guitar, Linnell's alto saxophone and a bunch of electronics, the band is now touring and recording with a full band. TMBG comes to The Edge in support of "Factory Showroom," the band's second release using a full band (1994's "John Henry" was its first). Unlike "John Henry," which was individual song-oriented, the new release has brought back some of the quirky, shorter pieces familiar to TMBG fans.
"With 'John Henry' we were really trying to make a live record with a live sound," Flansburgh explained. "It appears to be more of a transitional record than it appeared at the time."
The problem with "John Henry," he explained, is that while the songs all stand on their own, when taken as a whole, the sum is not greater than its parts. What was missing was that "unusual vibe," he said, a characteristic that made earlier works like 1988's "Lincoln" great.
The Giants aren't the first band to use the sum-is-greater-than-its-parts philosophy for recordings. The Beatles are the finest example of a group that used quirky and short tunes--on classics albums such as "Abbey Road" and "The White Album"--between carefully crafted full-length songs to create, what Flansburgh would call, that "unusual vibe."
The Giants may be, however, the first band to feature an ode to singing in a high-pitched voice ("How Can I Sing Like A Girl"), a tune inspired by a guidebook to buried treasure in coastal Maine ("Metal Detector"), a song that pits two '80s rock icons ("XTC vs. Adam Ant") and a track commemorating the 11th president of the United States ("James K. Polk") on the same album.
This might lead someone to ask: Why doesn't TMBG ever write a normal song?
"That's an interesting question," Flansburgh ponders. "We are aware that what we are doing is different than Top 40 stuff. We definitely write songs (that need) to be listened to more than once. We are really struggling to make songs that make sense to us and make sense to other people. I guess we are not doing a very good job.
"It's never been a smooth ride. It's hard listening. It's active music, and it's really for an active listener."
What: They Might Be Giants in concert; the Chainsaw Kittens open
Where: The Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto
When: 9 p.m. Thursday, March 13
How much: $12 advance
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