TMBG, as they're often called, has been making music as long as I have been alive, but their snappy three-minute tunes, willingness to experiment with new sound and distribution formats, and impressive productivity -- 16 studio albums in 26 years, numerous early demos, plus all the material from their Dial-A-Song days -- makes everything they do feel fresh. Take their latest recording, "Nanobots," now out on their own Idlewild label. Although there are 25 songs, you would never know it from the album's fast pace and trademark offbeat lyrics.
The Johns -- founding members John Flansburgh and John Linnell -- accompanied by their backing crew, have a knack for making music that is both smart and nonsensical. They are beloved by punks despite their generally sarcasm- and angst-free material, adored by children and the parents hip enough to have bought them "Here Come the ABCs," and not lacking in critical acclaim, to which their two Grammys would attest. So what makes TMBG so cherished?
After repeated listens to one of their classics ("Flood") as well as some newer material ("The Else"), I have come to the conclusion that the genius of TMBG lies in their effortlessly nerd-cool approach to songwriting. Much imitated, never quite replicated, the hand of the Johns is evident in everything they do. They've got a distinctive style, but they're constantly experimenting and churning out new stuff, with a wryness that comes through even on their children's albums. Quirky before quirky was a compliment, the Johns have furthered the cause of science-loving, glasses-wearing nerdsters everywhere. And they're still the only band I know to have ever written a song about Manifest Destiny, "James K. Polk".
All photos by Caroline Philippone.