Gentle Giants

Band's rock for tots spells things out for the rugrat demographic.

Tops KidsFest Tower City Amphitheater, 351 Canal Road 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, July 15, through Sunday, July 17; $7, $5 for kids; call 216-241-5555
They Might Be Giants to you, too, if you were only two - feet tall. The band plays Tops KidsFest this weekend.
They Might Be Giants to you, too, if you were only two feet tall. The band plays Tops KidsFest this weekend.
Longtime fans who lament They Might Be Giants' recent foray into children's music are missing the point. The fun-lovin', goof-spewin' group -- led by John Flansburgh and John Linnell -- has been making insanely catchy songs for big and little kids for two decades now. It just wasn't marketed to tots before.

But with Here Come the ABCs -- Disney-backed CD and DVD sets that tunefully run through nearly every letter of the alphabet -- They Might Be Giants have become the biggest sing-along group since the Wiggles. You can hear for yourself when the band performs two shows -- at noon and 3:30 p.m. Saturday -- at this weekend's Tops KidsFest, a three-day jamboree of music, games, interactive exhibits, contests, and hands-on activities.

"Writing for kids is a creative challenge, but it's so wide open," says Flansburgh. "We wanted to do something really different without being misunderstood -- that we weren't changing the fundamental thing about what we're doing."

The group started making music for adults in the mid-'80s with such modern-rock faves as "Don't Let's Start" and "Ana Ng." And it's still playing that material; it'll perform a grown-up concert at the Odeon Friday night (see Concert Scene). But really, there isn't that much of a difference between, say, "Particle Man" (from 1990's Flood, its most popular album with folks old enough to drink beer) and "E Eats Everything" (from Here Come the ABCs). In fact, the latter boasts a more boss guitar solo.

"It's a very precarious balancing act," admits Flansburgh. "The best thing about it is that we can't write with any of the crutches we normally have. In some ways, the children's stuff has taken the energy of the band back to our original bedroom-rock reality.

"It's not like we stand against the rock scene," he adds. "But what we do, honestly, doesn't fit into the rock scene."

They Might Be Giants have always packed their albums with tons of useful info. Many of the songs are three-minute lessons -- on history ("James K. Polk"), science ("Why Does the Sun Shine? [the Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas]"), and language ("I Palindrome I") -- wrapped in guitar, keyboards, and accordions.

And it's not like the players have lowered their standards, just because they've lowered the average age of their fans. Linnell (the dad of the duo) wrote "C Is for Conifers" for Here Come the ABCs, and even his bandmate says he learned a thing or two about pine trees because of it. "It's an idealistic song," says Flansburgh. "It's suggesting that there's a world to explore out there beyond television.

"We recognize that there's adult music that kids are exposed to that's exciting to them," he adds. "They hear these interesting rhythms and intense sounds. Parents and teachers tend to think that kids want to hear gentle folk music. Kids just want to dance."

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