The great critic Greil Marcus once called They Might Be Giants “the opposite of rock ’n’ roll.” He didn’t mean in it a good way. Bell-curve-busting kings of nerd-pop and AV room superheroes, TMGB exemplify the kind of “surface smart” and geeky, Advanced Placement cleverness that has always infuriated those who locate the genius of rock ‘n’ roll in its broad gestures, its cultural transgressions and its primitivism.
Part of me thinks that said primitivism just provides critics like Marcus with a less cluttered surface on which to theorize in their own super-smart but generally more French ways. Playful, self-conscious meta-rock like TMBG comes preloaded with its own robustly developed intellectual dimension. It theorizes back.
As an analyst of the politics of cool and the play of culture in music, Greil Marcus is totally awesome; but as a pure music critic, he has always struck me as a little…I don’t know, undermanned; and I think he is way off the mark regarding TMBG. From their self-titled debut in 1986 through 2018’s delightful return to form I Like Fun, TMBG have been so much more than clever. Surreal tricksters for sure, but also great melodists, tireless sonic experimenters and recombinant pop stylists, and writers of songs that are often obliquely touching and quite emotional in their own way.
The Giants in question, of course, are two guys named John: Linnell and Flansburgh, childhood friends from Massachusetts who reunited to make art in New York City in the 1980s. It went well, and continues to. The former is an opulently gifted melody-writer; a great keyboard, accordion and saxophone player; and an eccentric intellectual who can write remarkably coherent historical narratives in verse (Check out “James K. Polk” for the proof). He has accounted for the majority of TMBG’s small store of big hits (“Don’t Let’s Start,” “Ana Ng” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” are all Linnell tunes).
Flansburgh, on the other hand, is a worker, an assimilator and a practical pop scholar. He lacks Linnell’s effortless musicality and gift for living melodies, but makes up for it in effort, an acute command of stylistic reference and a modicum more of freewheeling rock than his partner. Many of Flansburgh’s best tunes (“Put Your Hand inside the Puppet Head,” “Twisting” and the Malcolm in the Middle theme song) have been rocking live highlights for years, freeing the live band from the occasional squareness of Linnell’s beatbox pop masterpieces. The synergy just works.
They Might Be Giants, Sunday, Dec. 30, 8 p.m., Daryl’s House, 130 Route 22, Pawling, (845) 289-0185, www.darylshouseclub.com