All Grown Up

“We’re an unusual band, and not everyone likes us, and there’s not some pop thing that we can access that would make [it] obvious,” says John Flansburgh, half of They Might Be Giants, tells Xpress. It’s an obvious statement from one of rock music’s most enduring curiosities.

A tale of two Johns: Two-and-a-half decades into their career, They Might Be Giants continue to innovate their already iconoclastic sound.

For the last 25 years, They Might Be Giants (comprised of Flansburgh and John Linnell) has created some of the most heady and idiosyncratic music available for mass consumption. To some, the idea of intelligent, quirky songwriting mingling with pop music may seem unlikely, but TMBG has made a career out of such works.

They’ve even brushed the mainstream with songs like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (written from the perspective of a night light) and “Boss of Me” (better known as the theme song to Malcolm in the Middle).

The even managed to immortialize a local stage, turning “The Orange Peel” into a song of bittersweet lost love for their 2004 album Venue Songs.

But with the release of their latest album, The Else (Idlewild Recordings, 2007), they up the ante with possibly their best album since 1990’s Flood. It’s pop music with brains and a heart. And it’s damn good.

“‘Sometimes good is the enemy of great,’” says Flansburgh. “I heard someone say this the other day, and it sums up the new album. We realized that at a certain point in the planning of the record that we need to make this album as bulletproof as we could make it.”

The New Pornographers play irresistible pop music

by Jason Bugg

It’s raining praise: The New Pornographers are ready for their sudden downpour of success. Marina Chavez

The title track of The New Pornographers’ latest album, Challengers (Matador), is possibly the most sugary-sweet breakup song written in recent memory. Built around a gentle strumming guitar and featuring gooey “oohs” and “ahhs” as background harmonies—and all wrapped up in an allusion to the Jack Kirby-penned Challengers of the Unknown comic strip—the song is a microcosm of ‘60s pop done The New Pornographers way. It’s retro without being hokey, owing to the past without being indebted to it and just geeky enough to get excite the true nerds in the audience.

To fans and critics alike, the New Pornographers are one of the last bands waving the flag of good, honest pop music, but according to frontman Carl Newman, the band is just one of many waving the flag of pop music.

“There are a ton of bands that are playing pop music; the Shins, Belle and Sebastian and Spoon immediately come to mind,” says Newman.

But while the Pornographers’ contemporaries are creating new wrinkles in the tried-but-true pop tradition, Newman and company stand out by being traditionalists. The New Pornographers’ sound is a delicate balance of staying modern but instantly recalling the pristine pop of The Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach.

“It’s hard not for me to be influenced by that stuff, because I totally love that music,” says Newman. “Name any classic band from that era, and I love them.”

Long thought of as a supergroup of sorts due to other members’ solo projects and commitments (including Newman’s solo albums and co-lead vocalist Neko Case’s growing solo career) the New Pornographers often struggle with the schematics of touring with all of their members.

But on this album and tour, with everyone in tow, the New Pornographers are sounding less like the indie-rock band du jour and more like the official band of a beach party hosted by Ira Glass—cutesy while still being self aware. Newman says that it’s all in a day’s work.

“We’re getting to a level where all of our shows are good,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re starting out as a band, you have shows that suck, and shows that are good. But these days we coast along and all of our shows are good.”

who: The New Pornographers with Emma Pollock and Immaculate Machine
what: Energetic ‘60s-inspired pop
where: Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Oct. 28 (8 p.m. $22. or 225-5851)


Working with The Dust Brothers, a duo most famous for their production work with The Beastie Boys and Beck, Linnell and Flansburgh created an album that somehow sounds like TMBG, but nothing like the band at the same time.

“[The Dust Brothers] are producers both in the hip-hop sense of the word and in the rock sense,” notes Flansburgh. “They put together tracks that people build songs on top of. For us, that’s a different way of working. It was an open-ended collaboration in that sense.”

The result is an album that is a vast departure for TMBG, one that taps less into the duo’s middle-school whine than it does their high-school angst.

“A lot of people remark on how aggressive the album sounds,” say Flansburgh. “It was only after we did the album that I realized how un-cuddly it was.”

Because of the “un-cuddlyness” of The Else, the album is helping the band shake its image as children’s artists, something it has fostered with releases of albums like No! and Here Come the ABCs. But according to Flansburgh, this wasn’t a calculated move.

“We don’t calculate what we do and we don’t worry about where it’s going to land, because it’s going to make us self conscious,” he says. “Maybe that’s our flaw as songwriters; that we don’t see what is going to happen down the line.”

Fortunately, the duo have always had a somewhat flexible fandom, and in concert are often able to play their kids’ songs right along with their adult-oriented material. According to Flansburgh, the oblique nature of their songs helps the band navigate the various tastes of their fans—no matter what age. (In fact, the duo has had their nonkids material promoted by decidedly nonadult ventures such as the Tiny Toon Adventures cartoon series and online cartoons.)

Flansburgh sees the age crossover in simpler terms as well, noting that “There are a lot of unreliable narrators in our songs.”

The band’s idiosyncratic ways don’t just stop with the narrators of their songs; even songs that seem overtly political can sometimes have a skewered message.

“The song ‘I’m Impressed’ [from The Else] is about observing a dictator and being impressed with their power,” Flansburgh says. “It’s a very insensible idea for a song, and the kind of thing that is not tolerated in wartime. But it’s real.”

But the political tag is still something that Flansburgh and Linnell like to shy away from.

“I find most people who try to [incorporate politics into their music] fail early and completely, and it just ends up being didactic. For us, we don’t have the musical superpowers of Bob Dylan, but we can do things that are singular,” he says. “We’ve found ways of incorporate our sensibilities and sense of humor into our music that holds up to repeated listening. That might be our biggest victory as songwriters.”

At the end of the day, is Flansburgh worried about TMBG being pigeonholed as just a novelty band? Not really.

“If we listen and follow our gut instincts we’ll be fine,” he says.

[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

who: They Might Be Giants with Oppenheimer
what: Quirky, smarmy pop
where: Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Oct. 27 (9 p.m. $23. or 225-5851)

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2 thoughts on “All Grown Up

  1. brebro

    TMBG are one of my favorite bands ever, and one of the handful that I would dare to leave the comfort of my house and go to see live. I saw them at the Orange Peel in 2004 with Corn Mo as the opening act and they were outstanding. I haven’t been able to make their last few shows, but I hope they continue coming to Asheville so that I may catch them again in the future.

  2. craig

    I’m sorry work is keeping me from going to the show. I saw them perform back in ’93 and ’99 and enjoyed the shows thoroughly. It was great to see kids and older folks having fun together at the latter show, in Winston-Salem.

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