I have been going to see They Might Be Giants in concert for almost twenty years. 2014 was the first year since I started seeing them (in 1996) that I did not catch their live show, mostly because they did just a handful of one-off shows. Through 2014, I had seen They Might Be Giants forty-six times. That number is about to shoot further up, as the band is putting out a wealth of new material this year, mounting a full tour, and also keeping a standing engagement to play a show on the last Sunday of every month at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. Marisa and I have tickets to all of the Williamsburg shows that have been put on sale so far (though I’ll have to miss the February edition), and we will be reporting on each show. Here is the first installment of our TMBG musical biography.
They Might Be Giants at the Music Hall of Williamsburg: 1/25/15
1. Damn Good Times
As weird as it is to think that Flood is twenty-five years old or that Factory Showroom will turn twenty next year, it’s almost weirder to consider that The Spine, the album that includes “Damn Good Times,” turned ten last year.
2. Number Three
If you ask me for my least favorite song on the first, self-titled TMBG album, I would probably say “32 Footsteps.” I’m not sure. It’s sort of nonsensical and sing-songy. But, if pressed, I think I’d also rather hear “32 Footsteps” randomly inserted into a live show than “Number Three,” the self-referential third track from that same record, about the narrator has just stepped one past his creative limit in writing a third song. It’s not a bad song, but it is a gimmick song, and there’s something both delightfully perverse and decidedly non-gimmicky about “32 Footsteps.”
“Erase” is one of several new songs TMBG has debuted this year via the return of Dial-a-Song. It used to be a phone number you could call and hear a new song, demo, or curiosity from the band. It is that again, but it is also a website and a subscription service that will showcase one new They Might Be Giants composition every week in 2015. It’s unclear how many of these songs will appear on the album currently slated for an April release, but if I had to bet, I’d say “Erase” will be on there; it’s the kind of polished but angular pop-rock tune that often shows up within the first five tracks of a latter-day TMBG record.
5. The Mesopotamians
I think I saw this song develop before my eyes. In 2003, I saw TMBG do at twentieth-anniversary gig at the Bowery Ballroom, where they covered the theme song from The Monkees. No one sings the theme from The Monkees and writes a song like “The Mesopotamians” without some kind of connecting affection for sixties-style prefab bands. This seems like Linnell’s take on the subject, while Flansburgh had his with “Working Undercover for the Man.”
Marisa and I went to this show with friends who had been with us at several TMBG shows of the now-way-past, including my friend Flannery who was with me the first two times I saw the band in 1996. This is the first song we saw at the January show that was also played at our first show back in ’96 — one of only three such songs all night, and the only one that wasn’t really a proper single. Parents drove us to those 1996 shows. I almost lost a shoe in the scrum, because most shows at that point had scrums. At the first show, we saw the Violent Femmes, too. They were so good that some of us went back and saw them again next time they played a local college, in 1998. It wasn’t as good. “Older” didn’t get commercially released until 1999, when it appeared on Long Tall Weekend, the first internet-exclusive album (and actually mostly just Factory Showroom outtakes). Then it came out again in 2001, on Mink Car. I saw it performed twice in 1996, four times in 1998, four times in 1999, once in 2000. I heard it at the first show I attended with Marisa in 2001 and most, though not all, years since then. And now we’re older still.
7. We’re the Replacements
This song was the first I had ever heard about the Replacements. Rolling Stone magazine really fell asleep on the job, not getting the word to me before I listened to Miscellaneous T, the B-side collection on which this song appears, in 1996 or so. I wouldn’t say it’s the reason I bought Pleased to Meet Me a year or two later, but it’s certainly a cooler claim for TMBG than the Cub CD I bought after learning that they were the original authors and performers of the song “New York City.”
8. Hate the Villanelle
A funny-voice Linnell song that, at first listen, does not have anything to do with the great song “Hate the Sport” or its sister variation “Hate Vasteras.”
9. Spiraling Shape
This song began and I felt three things: a feeling of elation that I was actually hearing it; Marisa making a check-mark on my back with her finger, signaling her approval; and serious wonder over when the last time I heard this song played live. There are practical measures for figuring such things out; the fan-run TMBG wiki has an exhaustive database of setlists and the means to record your attendance, so you can sort through the list of shows you’ve seen. So I checked to find out when I last heard “Spiraling Shape” live, and it was on New Year’s Eve, 2005, at Northsix (the venue that became the Music Hall of Williamsburg). I thought it was even longer ago. In fact, when it briefly looked as if it was back in 1998, I still would have thought it was even longer ago. I’ve found this has happened to me a fair number of times as I grow older and see certain bands more and more times. I get really excited about hearing a song I haven’t heard live in forever or ever, only to find out that I actually have heard it live plenty of times. I would also call “Spiraling Shape” a quintessential TMBG song in a way that their absolute twenty-best songs cannot be by virtue of their excellence. That’s not a knock on the band or on the song, which I love, nor is it even a reference to its appearance on the Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy soundtrack, which does feel somewhat quintessential all on its own. Rather, it’s a perfect example of what this band sounds like, lyrically (thoughtful but clever) and musically (strange but catchy).
10. Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2
I’m pretty sure that the “What’s That Blue Thing?” segment of “Fingertips” was technically the third TMBG composition I ever heard, after the standard “Particle Man” and “Istanbul” duo on Tiny Toons. In a live performance, though, it’s all about the build up to a majestic “Walk Along Darkened Corridors.” Generally I might prefer to hear something else from Apollo 18 mixed into the set, but that “Darkened Corridors” really sells the usefulness of the “Fingertips” exercise.
12. Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel
13. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
This was performed as a duo, just Linnell and Flansburgh, accordion and guitar. It reminded me of the They Might Be Giants Television Appearance Bootleg Compilation that I still have. Someone on the internet agreed to copy his VHS compilation of TMBG’s appearances on various television programs from about 1986 until 1996 (largely focused on the early nineties) if we sent him a blank tape and money for postage. My high school friends and I pooled our money and did this, and then copied the copy we received. There are many grainy, sixth-generation bits of precious footage that YouTube has since rendered largely unnecessary, and one unofficial thread that you could follow through countless TV appearances and performances was a gradual deconstruction of their hit single “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” The band has never, to my knowledge, betrayed any feelings of tiredness over playing a few songs dozens if not hundreds of times per year for the past thirty years. They still play “Birdhouse in Your Soul” pretty much every show, and “Istanbul” too. But I imagine “Istanbul” being a cover may lend it a certain level of detachment or willingness to experiment, which I’ve seen over the years in a variety of arrangements, renewing the song’s novelty when I might otherwise prefer they didn’t play it at all. That willingness to screw around with one of their biggest hits is never clearer than in their TV performances of “Istanbul,” which start out fairly straightforward and eventually become more fragmented, staccato, sometimes borderline deranged. This has a logical endpoint, and that endpoint is the video below.
14. Turn Around
15. Man, It’s So Loud In Here
17. Doctor Worm
I did not actually like “Doctor Worm” the first few times I heard it in concert. It was sort of like: oh, that nonsense again. That nonsense grew on me by the time they did a proper studio version for Severe Tire Damage and now my heart leaps when I get to hear it live. I would even include it on my theoretical circa-1999 TMBG album that would have ranked among their very best, had it existed. Instead, the songs that would have been on it scattered to various albums, EPs, bonus tracks, internet albums, B-sides, and others over the years. Ask me about it sometime.
18. Museum of Idiots
There are a variety of songs TMBG tends to go to when they have access to horn players, as they did at this show, and this one is the best, maybe because the main riff in it is actually a horn riff, or maybe because Marisa and I danced to this song at our wedding, around eight years after we first saw TMBG together.
Nanobots is my favorite They Might Be Giants album since The Spine, maybe since Factory Showroom, and this song, which I first heard and instantly fell in love with at a pre-NYE show in December 2012, is a bigger part of why than I should probably admit. There are times when later-period TMBG songs seem a little too on-the-nose, a little too close to exactly what a fan might expect from them: “Tesla,” a tuneful and respectable mini-biography song of the fetishized inventor, comes to mind. But as stereotypical as They Might Be Giants singing about nanobots might sound, this is a great, inventive song, from the overlapping, semi-round style of the vocals to the occasional stutters of the guitar line to the lyrics about the cohabitation of tiny robots. It’s both familiar and, in its way, totally surprising.
20. Call You Mom
21. Authenticity Trip
“Authenticity Trip” is not a B-side. B-sides still exist, to some extent, especially now that vinyl has made a comeback, but for a lot of bands, including TMBG, the delivery system has changed. In the eighties and nineties, TMBG put out a bunch of great EPs, with multiple songs good enough for one of their albums. More recently, though, their various outtakes and extras tend to get insta-collected into a single disc, like the podcast-based collection that accompanied the first CD pressing of The Else, or Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, which basically gathered together all of the Join Us-era songs that would have otherwise appeared on various EPs and put them out together. “Authenticity Trip” is on that non-album, and it’s one of the best, with a garage-y stomp that Flansburgh occasionally and productively indulges.
22. Birdhouse in Your Soul
23. Mr. Me
24. With the Dark
25. Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal
26. When Will You Die
I wonder sometimes if I am the only TMBG fan in the world who doesn’t much care for this song. I think it’s my fond memories of the band’s past forays into morbidity or considerations of mortality that makes this one feel like kind of a nothing at best. Their other songs that betray a preoccupation with death have a sense of melancholy or mordant wit entirely lacking from this one. I can picture an awkward, beleaguered eighth-grader really vibing with its cutesy lyrics about wishing death on an unnamed antagonist, married to a peppy, horn-accentuated melody, and while that does slightly endear it to me, it also plays into the easy stereotype of They Might Be Giants: songs for maladjusted nerds. Of course, maladjusted nerds need music too, and I feel a sort of kinship, yes, with even their gooniest fans. But it doesn’t extend to actually enjoying this song, even if it has nice band-intro verse that will probably make it a live-show staple for years to come.
27. How Can I Sing Like a Girl?
28. Cyclops Rock
The most 2001 thing about “Cyclops Rock,” which I love, is that the version that appears on Mink Car was the culmination of several sorta-circulated versions from the past few years that reached peak 2001-ness and therefore album-readiness when it added backing vocals and a freestyle-sounding verse from Cerys Matthews, the lead singer of the Welsh band Catatonia. NOTE: My memories of 2001 obviously involve more Welsh bands that didn’t really break in America than yours.
29. Ana Ng
How obsessed was I with this video? The answer is extremely obsessed. We used to do the dance in the video at shows where they played “Ana Ng” and I’ll let you in on a secret: when I hear it to this day, some part of my body, if only an invisible organ or some blood or a part of my brain, is doing this dance.