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Big Fun From the Giants

They Might Be Giants
Chris Cuffano

Dial-A-Singer: John Flansburgh (left) and John Linnell pioneered the DIY movement.

They Might Be Giants goof off in a serious vein on 'Factory 'Showroom'

By Gina Arnold

DON'T KILL 'em for it, but They Might Be Giants are almost single-handedly responsible for the phenomenon known as alternative rock. In 1987, the duo broke through MTV's unofficial ban on indie-label product with the video for "Don't Let's Start." The song went on to be a radio hit, thus creating the buzz bin and, by proxy, that much-maligned creature, alternarock.

"Don't Let's Start" still stands as one of the decade's catchiest songs, but thanks to its goofy lyrics (the chorus spells out "don't," including the apostrophe), They Might Be Giants are often (wrongly) plugged into the funny-rock category, alongside bands like Ween, Weezer and (the also wrongly categorized) Camper Van Beethoven.

True, the Giants do suffer from too much cleverness, but songs like "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Ana Ng" and the fabulous "Snail Shell" are merely classy exercises in old-fashioned pop, more Cole Porter than Devo. And for all their goofing, They Might Be Giants were--and still are--serious proponents of DIY, inventors of "Dial-A-Song" (remember: it's free if you call from work or your parents' house) and John Flansburgh's Hello Club (a mail-order business offering four-song CDs of self-recorded original material by groovy indie types like Mac MacCaughan or Frank Black every month).

Moreover, not every Giants song is a joke. "Your Racist Friend," from Lincoln, may be the most pointedly PC song ever, but the funny-core tag still clings like glue, perhaps because of early shows at which the band played as a duo backed by tapes, sold fezzes instead of T-shirts, and packed an hour with witty remarks and novelty numbers like "The Sun Is a Mass (of Incandescent Gas)" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

One can't help but wonder where the band would be without parentheses. But for many years now, Giants shows have been more on the virtuosic side, thanks to a full band that includes Pere Ubu's Tony Maimone. Their latest album, Factory Showroom (Elektra), is bursting with complicated melodies and intricate instrumentation.

The lyrics are admittedly a mite screwy. On "How Can I Sing Like a Girl," Linnell poses the all-important question, "How can I sing like a girl/and not be stigmatized by the rest of the world?" "XTC Vs. Adam Ant" is a ragtime-meets-metal battle of the genres that pits Beatlesesque pop against the "New Romantic," which (rightly) concludes, "In rock & roll, there is no right or wrong!"

In fact, that's a rare self-referential remark, because They Might Be Giants have always been all over the map. "Beatlesesque pop" describes "Metal Detector"; "New Romantic" describes "XTC." But the band also makes forays into disco, soul and exotica--sometimes all within the same song.

AT ITS BEST, the duo can whip off a song that sounds surreal but, in fact, has a point quite near the surface. Factory Showroom's "Your Own Worst Enemy" quotes Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Precious and Few" while discussing the well-known phenomenon of self-sabotoge in love. "New York City" is a Woody Allenesque celebration of the band's hometown.

"Pet Name" tells of a couple that doesn't know each other very well. "Metal Detector" is a "Birdhouse in Your Soul"­like meditation on looking beneath surface impressions: "Everything on the top will just suddenly stop seeming interesting ... so listen hard to the things that are found under the ground."

True, "Exquisite Dead Guy," "Spiraling Shape" and "James Polk"--a musical overview of America's 11th president that reprises the B-side to 1990's "Constantinople"--do qualify as goof-rock. But a better term might be "smart rock." The band approaches banal subjects like love and happiness obliquely and playfully; they are Oingo Boingo for adults, a musical Monty Python.

"Factory Showroom" is their most concise record to date. Gone are the sound effects of Apollo 18's "Fingertips," and there's none of the rampant verbosity that characterized songs like "Rocket to the Moon" and "Extra Savoire Faire" from 1994's brilliant John Henry.

But to call this record straightforward would be erroneous as well. Musically, They Might Be Giants are far more sophisticated then Weezer, and not as mean as Ween. If anything, good-natured is the duo's byword, and that in itself is refreshing. Sure, there's a level on which the Giants exist to serve the geeky science nerd within all of us. But that's a hell of a lot better then being one of a million sound-alike alternarock bands.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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