Their evil twin
In an interview with the Observer a couple of years ago, Frank Black confessed that if he could have been in any band other than his own Pixies, he would have joined They Might Be Giants. Such an admission seemed both odd and appropriate: the Pixies and They Might Be Giants were touring partners and friends before they were labelmates at Elektra in the late '80s, and both bands shared an affinity for subverting the conventional forms of pop music (which is itself a convention of pop music, but that is beside the point). And yet the Pixies were considered a rock band, maybe not punks but musicians who depended upon its power and noise to get by; the Giants, though, were labeled somewhere between novelty and college-rock, two nerds with the same name (John, as in John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the co-writers and singers) who made clever dance music for intellectuals with two left feet.

And yet, as time has told, as Frank Black pursued his solo career and began broadening his repertoire--he's now as country as he is punk, as new-wave as he is folk, as R&B as he is rock--They Might Be Giants moved toward a more "conventional" line-up, expanding from the two Johns and a drum machine to sometimes more than six pieces. And somewhere in the middle is the most common of grounds, the place Black and They Might Be Giants dare not tread.

"In a way, I think that what we're doing is essentially our own trip, and I don't really feel like the message is one of rebellion," says guitarist-singer Flansburgh. "We're on the outside of the pop culture mainstream and we're just standing in the breakdown lane waving our arms. I think that in terms of style, we try to experiment as much as possible."

If nothing else, John Henry (the band's fifth album) is the logical conclusion of an experiment begun with such songs as "Don't Let's Start," "Ana Ng," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," "The Guitar," and "Particle Man." The only differences are that horns are now folded effortlessly into the mix, and the lyrics have become less obtuse; they still write like grad students on a caffeine jag ("I Should Be Allowed to Think" quotes and then parodies "Howl," and "Meet James Ensor" is an ode to the Belgian painter), but they're not beyond paying tribute to Alice Cooper or going Latin for a song or three.

"I think we're more dignified than our general rap, which is that we're quirky," Flansburgh says. "But I don't know. Then people underscore how weird we are, but I don't know how weird we really are. In the world of rock, where people make a big deal out of how weird they are, we're a come-as-you-are band."

They Might Be Giants and Frank Black perform December 7 at the Majestic Theatre.

--Robert Wilonsky


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