Once upon a time, a very long time ago, in a desperate attempt to make her cantankerous children happy, a young mother loaded them in the car for a "mystery trip" to a motel on Lake Michigan. It was raining and cold — the kind of day that can make one feel both incompetent and unattractive. The kids were not impressed with the prospect of several hours in the car and started to beat each other about the head in the backseat. The young mother knew exactly what to do: she popped in a bootleg (sorry) tape of They Might Be Giants songs. And the children were happy and sang along. And the single mom was suddenly cool and youthful, and she, too, sang along. And it was good.
The strange, dorky, perfect songs of They Might Be Giants were my sound track for a couple of very interesting years. And when they came to the Michigan Theater sometime in the early 1990s, I bought tickets and my kids and I danced in our seats. It was the kids' first rock concert — a lot louder than the songs on the bootleg tape, but we didn't care.
This is music for those with no attention span (many songs last just a minute or two and sometimes just . . . stop). This is music for people who read the faint, white writing printed on a rearview mirror and think, "Wow, that would make a great song." It is music for the odd and the disaffected, and for people with ordinary nonsingerly voices who, possibly whilst stoned, get great ideas for songs and assorted art projects — TMBG actually follow through and write those songs. They are censor free. And the result is amazing, freethinking music that is utterly original and often somewhat irritatingly beautiful. I don't mind that New Yorkers John Flansburgh and John Linnell are probably millionaires; they deserve to be for writing songs with titles like "My Racist Friend," "The Statue Got Me High," "I Palindrome I," "Fingertips," and "Which Describes How You're Feeling."
What have they been doing since the days of my mystery trip? Recording theme songs and incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle, Austin Powers 2, and All Things Considered; recording children's music; touring where and when they want to; and maintaining relationships with their legions of fans through such direct-entry musical experiences as their popular Dial-a-Song service (718-387-6962; I just called and it was busy) or www.dialasong.com (which I'm listening to right now and is really fun). Oh, and making plans to play at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival on Saturday, July 3, at the Power Center.