Going back a few years, during the late heights of the dot-com boom, New York was overrun by a character I called the Riot Nrrrd. For a while, he was on every street, in every restaurant, in multiple iterations at parties—and in TV commercials and print ads. He was bald and wore wonky horn-rimmed glasses. He was about five foot nine and had a certain smirky aspect that suggested clued-in cyberconsciousness and nerdy bonhomie. If there were a speech balloon trailing him, it would have read something like, “Get with it, people!!!” He was an emblem of the Zeitgeist, an animate spirit of the New Millennium. He stood for smartness, a singularly late-nineties kind of childlike avidity, and (mostly) an encompassing brittle irony.
They Might Be Giants were that guy almost twenty years before he was cool. Not literally—both members of the duo, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, retain hair, and only sometimes wear glasses. But the same basic aesthetic rings through their work, from 1982 to their latest album, Here Come the ABCs. TMBG are ironic-geeky avatars amid a perennially ironic-geeky New York music scene. Their songs are impressively crafted, catchy, immensely popular, and gleefully shrill and sneering—often a technically excellent but flip parody of pop music and songwriting.
Another sturdy (yet hip) cultural touchstone is the expression “X is the new X”—as in the title of Ben Lee’s new CD, Awake Is the New Sleep. Pop culture these days is actually quite slow to change, despite constant hype about its minute-to-minute ephemerality: People have been saying that gray is the new black, up is the new down, tilapia the new Chilean sea bass, since about five years ago. And Ben Lee has been doing the same basic thing for about twice as long. He was the 14-year-old wunderkind who fronted Noise Addict, the Australian band that caused a huge indie-rock stir in late 1994 with the song “I Wish I Was Him”; his thing ever since has been naïve, emotionally vulnerable indie-rock without a hint of irony—acoustic-guitar-driven songs about girls (as in the new album’s “Apple Candy”) that feature melancholy or uplifting lyrics about life’s charms and disappointments (“Catch My Disease” and “No Right Angles”). At 26, he seems as broad and artless as a healthy 12-year-old. The songs, engaging as they are, sound cursory, as though Lee wrote them while riding the bus on his way to the studio, staring at his watch and an empty notebook.
What Lee and TMBG have in common is a childlike quality similar to that of, for instance, Jonathan Richman, Jad Fair, or Daniel Johnston. But Lee and TMBG have a choice between the adult world and the playground and choose, perennially, to keep kicking pebbles and crowing from atop the jungle gym.
So it’s perhaps appropriate that TMBG’s greatest recent success has been in children’s music. Here Come the ABCs continues in the same vein with 25 short songs about the alphabet (and a corresponding Disney-produced DVD). The difference between these songs and their regular, adult ones is fairly minimal—as ever, the duo writes smart, deft songs full of stylistic twists and a near-tactile sense of instrumental tone.
And yet, with both albums and their different flavors of childlike harmlessness—the self-regarding, good-natured irony of the Riot Nrrrd, the glad and big preadolescence of Ben Lee—what’s missing is the astonishment of discovery, the genuine feelings of childhood, with its emotional storms and mad energy. Although their once-brash newness has coalesced into a sort of arrested development, both TMBG and Ben Lee are skilled crafters of witty, self-aware pop. And it’s hard to fault them for adapting to a music scene in which hipsters have kids of their own while clinging to the fond conceit that their own childhoods have yet to end.