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Revenge of the nerds

They Might Be Giants add flavor to moribund summer concert line-up


In the middle of a summer lineup of blasé one-hit wonders and post-Vedder grunters, They Might Be Giants shine as one of the few acts presented during Centennial Park's free "On the Bricks" Friday concerts with true longevity. Their appearance is even more remarkable because their music is rarely, if ever, played on 99X, the radio station that is sponsoring the concert series.

The hyperactive duo of accordionist/ keyboardist John Linnell and left-handed guitarist John Flansburgh always have been an anomaly in the music world. Their angular songs are cult favorites among cerebral music fans who enjoy their melodic and light-hearted takes on everything from presidents to nightlights.

"Their sound may not fit what is currently popular on the radio, but they have proven that there is a niche for what they do because of their loyal fan base, " explains 99X Program Director Leslie Fram. "There are many bands that have a strong tour base that never really have success on the radio because the songs may not be radio friendly, meaning the songs may not be commercially viable."

The band, however, has a different view of the broadcast media. "As a teenager, I spent a lot of energy shaking my fist at the radio going, 'Why, why, why can't I find anything that doesn't suck?' " guitarist Flansburgh says. "We're happy sitting over here in the corner of the culture."

The thrill of finding out about They Might Be Giants through the Internet or fellow music fans makes their oddly literate yet charmingly goofy music even more appealing. "Bad music is very easy to find," says Flansburgh. "Often you have to dig a little deeper. You can't expect the good stuff to find you. Our culture doesn't work that way."

After an eight-year association with Elektra, the band was unceremoniously dumped from the label three years ago. "Basically a giant anchor was tied to our ankles and we were tossed into the deepest part of the rock ocean," says Flansburgh. "But we'd done a project we were proud of (the barely promoted Factory Showroom) so we just kept going and the core fans supported us."

Though the band seemed to disappear briefly, the pair actually entered a new-and-improved phase that Flansburgh calls their busiest ever. They released an Internet-only album, Long Tall Weekend (, and began to do soundtrack work including incidental music for the TV series "Malcolm in the Middle" and the "Dr. Evil" theme for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

"We were basically living in the studio and getting paler and paler," Flansburgh says. Though finally able to break out of the tour write record tour again cycle, the two weren't totally satisfied with the results. "We kind of dipped our big toe in the Hollywood thing and it's not as exciting as it seems," he says.

For "Malcolm in the Middle," they were required to produce up to 20 minutes of new music per episode. "Doing TV work and film soundtracks has sort of become the elephant's graveyard of rock," Flansburgh admits. "It's like where you go when you don't make records anymore."

But the Giants were far from dead. In fact, their output actually increased during this so-called downtime. During breaks from "Malcolm," the pair recorded 34 tracks for a CD to accompany McSweeney's, a literary journal. Released in April, the issue has sold a staggering 30,000 copies. "That's gotta be some rockin' sales figures," says Flansburgh. "I mean, how many Paris Reviews get sold?"

While the last few years of new ventures have been exciting for Flansburgh, he feels They Might Be Giants are at their finest as a working band. "That's what we do best, and that's where we're at again now," he says. This fall, the duo is set to release Mink Car, their first new commercially available album in several years. An impressive return to form, the 17-song album features the band's most modern production to date with decidedly current groove-oriented flourishes. Don't expect gritty urban street life, though. When the duo sings of "Bangs," it's about the hair in front of a girl's forehead. Flansburgh raps like a staid New Englander on "Wicked Little Critta."

Ignoring commercial radio's indifference, Flansburgh and Linnell continue to produce a dizzying amount of new material. Their Dial-A-Song service (718-387-6962) still features one or two different songs every day, as it has for most of their 18-year career. "The pace of a lot of rock standards has been set by a lot of flaky people," Flansburgh says. "If you're really serious and focus on what you want to do, you can do an awful lot. We just hide our self-seriousness very well.

"Mostly, we just try to write songs that hold up to repeated listening, and that's a pretty big challenge," Flansburgh says. "It's easy to just write, but to write a song that endures and has a melody that lingers on. That's really our goal."

They Might Be Giants play Fri., June 29, at Centennial Olympic Park for the On the Bricks music series. Show time is 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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