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[whitespace] They Might Be Giants
Might be? Hell, they are Giants.

Gigantic

They Might Be Giants make music for kids as well as adults

By Gina Arnold

ABOUT A MILLION YEARS AGO, sometime in the middle of the end of the last century, a guy knocked on my door one afternoon with a vinyl record in his hand that he wanted me to review. He was a friend of a friend of my sister's best friend, and the record, he said, was by another friend's band. They lived in New York but would be playing in the Bay Area soon, so would I take a listen and see what I could do? This kind of thing used to happen to me regularly but seldom were the records any good. In fact, this case may be the only time that I was hand-delivered a record of great genius that I still listen to today.

Last week, I watched that same band sing the song that eventually became a hit from that album, and I thought about why it was such a success. The song, "Don't Let's Start," was certainly a great one, a career-making song if ever there was one. But there are plenty of bands that have written one great hit and bottomed out immediately (EMF, Nena, Third Eye Blind, just to name a few).

What has made They Might Be Giants so special isn't so much their tunes, their instrumentation, their high-energy live shows and their funny word play and imagery on subsequent songs ("My story's infinite / like the Longines Symphony, it doesn't end"). No, it has been their sheer hard work. To say they're marketing geniuses is to put it mildly. "Dial a Song" is an answering machine with a song on its tape; members of the Hello Club receive free CDs each month; their work is heard on TV (Malcolm in the Middle), film (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) and the Internet.

In short, contrary to the popular image of rock bands, They Might Be Giants work hard for their money. This is a band that plays, records and tours incessantly, just to keep itself alive in a culture that generally kills off acts that don't sell in the millions. As John Flansburgh, a founding member, told me recently, "What we do is not for everybody, so we're obliged to find ourselves a new audience all the time. It's like we're in permanent 'scrappy' mode, never able to sit back and relax."

That being the case, the Giants have burrowed their noses into just about every musical nook and cranny possible, and now they've found a new market to conquer: kids' music. The genre is, as anyone who's ever been there can attest, an extremely fallow field from the point of view of a parent. You've got Woody Guthrie, the Limelighters, Raffi--and then the quality and listenability take a giant nose dive into yuckiness.

No, the Giants' new "children's" LP, isn't yucky at all. In fact, it sounds just like a They Might Be Giants record, with slightly gentler subject matter. There are songs on it about robots, grocery bags, clocks, food, crossing the street, going to bed and, of course, as the title implies, adults saying, "No."

Happily, despite the subject matter, it is a fine album for adults to listen to, too, as was made clear when the band played almost the entire album, punk-rock fashion, at its recent gig at the Fillmore last week, although a newcomer might have had a hard time discerning whether a song like "Mr. Worm" or "Birdhouse in Your Soul" was an adult song or a child's one. But then, no one in a Giants audience these days is a newcomer: they have an extraordinarily rabid cult crowd.

This summer, on Aug. 15, They Might Be Giants will be celebrating their 20th anniversary with a free show in New York's Central Park. But as I watched them in San Francisco, the years fell away. I felt as if they were friends I'd grown up with, friends who'd read the same books, heard the same music on the radio ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight") and even gone to all the same rock shows.

The last time I saw them before the Fillmore gig was during a four-week stand at the Bowery Ballroom, at which every show--and every set, even--was different: one was acoustic, one was with a full orchestra, one was "normal" and so on. But the truth is, it takes that kind of ingenuity--that willingness to change--to keep an audience with a band for 20 long years. They Might Be Giants have twisted and wormed and wiggled their way across decades, and I have wiggled with them. It's nice to know that neither of us is going to end up in some sad ballroom at a Holiday Inn, playing the hits for the geriatric crowd.


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From the July 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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