They Might Be geniuses as well as Giants

September 18, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

By almost any reckoning, They Might Be Giants -- the songwriting and recording team of John Flansburgh and John Linnell -- are pure pop geniuses. Their best work is ingeniously structured and relentlessly tuneful, the sort of hook-a-minute masterpieces, which, once heard, ricochet around your memory for hours.

They really crank 'em out, too. Each of the Giants' five albums packs a hefty 18 or 19 songs, yet there always seems to be enough left over to stock their Dial-A-Song number, a self-run service that offers a new tune daily for the price of a long-distance call (it's [718] 387-6962, in case you're curious).

Most amazing of all is that for most of their recording career, the two Giants have done it all themselves, assembling each arrangement through a series of painstaking overdubs. But that isn't because the duo are the kind of perfectionists who couldn't bear to hand their songs over to someone else; frankly, says Flansburgh, it was because they couldn't afford to hire help.

"We didn't make money for many years," he says, over the phone from his Brooklyn home. "I think we just didn't want to ask somebody to like give up their entire life just to play our over-arranged rock songs."

Fortunately, that's no longer the case. Since working their way up to the majors, the two Johns have not only been able to afford guest musicians in the studio -- witness the 11 itinerant musicians wandering through their latest album, "Apollo 18" -- but now tour in front of a full band.

Flansburgh couldn't be happier. Although he admits that a few fans miss the manic intimacy of the Giants' old duo performances, he finds that most appreciate the band's expansion. "It's worked out really well," he says. "Part of it is that we have the luxury of being able to work with musicians who are better than us, so it's not holding us back technically. I mean, we don't do technical music, but some of it is kind of sophisticated in its arrangement.

"Also, we get to do 'Stump the Band,' " he adds.

"Stump the Band" is pretty much what its title suggests. "We ask the audience to make a request for any song we don't know how to play, and we do it," Flansburgh explains. "Two days ago, in Poughkeepsie, we got a request for 'Desperado.' It came out OK, although I didn't know any of the words. We just kind of made up new words."

Sometimes, the "new words" Flansburgh and Linnell slip into these band-stumpers aren't quite so intentional. For instance, when the Rick James hit "Super Freak" was requested at one show, Flansburgh was scolded by a fan for singing the line, "She's got intertwining candles" -- a lyric he thought actually was in the song.

"I never understood the line," he laughs. "I thought it was like, some kind of strange reference to those candles that curve around one another. Evidently he's saying, 'Incense, wine and candles.' "

Still, any confusion over Rick James lyrics pales in comparison with the potential problems posed by the band's John factor. As you may have noticed, both Giants are named John, something which leaves some fans unsure of which John is which. "We were cursed with the same name, and we don't make a big point of making sure that everybody knows exactly who we are," concedes Flansburgh. "I'm the guitar-playing one. The one with glasses.

"Actually, John has glasses too. . . ."

It gets worse, though. "We've got a guy in the band whose name is remarkably close to mine," says Flansburgh. "The drummer's name is John Feinberg. We actually call him J. D. Feinberg, just to avoid having another John. One time we did an entire tour with an all-John crew. That was really painful."

Why so many Johns? "I think it's because around the Kennedy era, parents just went crazy for the name 'John.' So it's not our fault. We had nothing to do with it."

They Might Be Giants

When: Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.

Where: Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins University.

Tickets: $18.50.

Call: (410) 481-7328.

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