18 May 2013
They Might Be Giants
Bar Bodega, 101 Ghuznee St
17 May 2013
The sound: choppy, punchy, blippy Brooklyn nerd rock. The participants: the spiritual heirs to the legacy of Devo. The clothes: Casual Architect. This was They Might Be Giants' first Wellington show, and their first visit to New Zealand since 2001. In a way, it's a small miracle that a band that makes pop music in such a pleasingly off-kilter fashion should have survived for more than three decades, but it's to our benefit because their snappy, high-pitched tracks are so enjoyable in a live venue. Bodega is a perfect venue to appreciate the band live - I was 10 metres from the stage, positioned strategically behind shorter concert-goers, and had a perfect view of the stage and the performers. It's a pleasure to see John Flansburgh and John Linnell still clearly enjoying their work, resolute in refusing to take themselves too seriously, and relishing the opportunity to play songs from their back catalogue mixed in with new material from this year's new album Nanobots.
The new material is catchy and appealing. Nanobots' premise is plenty of micro-songs, but there are also tracks of traditional length like those performed, including You're On Fire, the title track Nanobots, the dynamic Circular Karate Chop, and that TMBG specialty, a biographical ode to inventor Nikolai Tesla. The material from the back catalogue gets a very warm reception too, of course. It must be a treat to fly to the other side of the world and receive rapturous applause for your number about the obscure 11th president of the United States (James K. Polk, from their 1996 album Factory Showroom) or your cover of Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas) from their identically-titled 1993 EP. It was also great to hear the wilfully schizophrenic Fingertips 'suite' from Apollo 18 for the first time, which consists of 21 micro-tracks totalling four and a half minutes.
Perhaps a useful illustration of TMBG's outlook is to quote from their John Linnell's Don't Let's Start from 1987, a gleaming slice of power pop sporting the potentially haunting lines: 'No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful / Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful'. This would be quite a heavy concept were it not directly followed up with: 'They want what they're not and I wish they would stop saying deputy dog dog a ding dang depadepa / Deputy dog dog a ding dang depadepa'. Well, quite.
TMBG are one of those bands I have foolishly neglected, basing my admiration on the contents of the excellent Dial-a-Song double CD compilation. There's plenty more to explore, and this concert was a reminder that I need to track down more of their albums - particularly Flood and Apollo 18, for starters. The band is to be commended for its move several years ago to diversify its recordings to include clever and catchy music for children - a field notoriously dominated by rampant cliche and po-faced infantilism. But that does raise the alarming prospect that some of the younger members of the audience actually came across the band in their nurseries!
TMBG's charm also assists matters greatly. They showed a pleasing stage presence, bantering with the audience despite a lack of coherent witticisms from the Friday night crowd, which was usually dealt with by professing not to understand a single word of the New Zealand accent. And while I know stories of celeb Twitter interaction are deathly dull to the people not involved, I would just like to point out that when I'd walked home and posted my thanks for a great gig, adding jokily 'If only we could understand your impenetrable accents', John Flansburgh replied within a few minutes 'It is difficult. We're like the Brooklyn Proclaimers'. Simple things like that earn plenty of loyalty from fans!
Here's an unofficial (but TMBG-endorsed) fan video for a track from the new album:
Earlier, floppy-fringed David Bain jumper-wearing Christchurch support Tom Lark (plus a mate) impressed with a fun collection of indie jangle-pop.
Music: TMBG - Birdhouse in Your Soul (on Leno, 1990, with Doc Severinsen)
Music: TMBG - New York City (live, Williamsburg NY, April 2013)
Music: Tom Lark - Hipsteranity