You might suppose that collaborating with They Might Be Giants would be a load of laughs, given the charming wackiness of indie-pop tunes such as “Particle Man,” “Ana Eng” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”
But John Linnell and John Flansburgh, while brainy, clever and funny, also are control freaks, and throughout the 1980s and `90s, they could be, as Linnell puts it, “frustrating to work with.”
(Universal; US: 10 Jul 2007; UK: Available as import)
That started to change with 2001’s “Mink Car.” The Brooklyn-based musicians decided to let outside producers get more involved. And because of what Linnell calls “the nice experience” with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, he and Flansburgh have learned to ease up on the reins and add new dimensions to their sound.
Just how far have Linnell and Flansburgh come? For TMBG’s latest CD, “The Else,” they chose the Dust Brothers - Michael Simpson (aka E.Z. Mike) and John King (aka King Gizmo) - the production team best known for their work with Beck and the Beastie Boys. (Linnell and Flansburgh even allowed friends of theirs - wearing various bird and animal masks - to stand in for them for the CD booklet photos.)
“Early in our career, we wanted the credit,” says Linnell, 48, from his Brooklyn home. “We were very into producing. After all, we started out with home recordings. Now we are more relaxed about it. John and I are very much on the same page.”
Linnell says the Dust Brothers “work slowly and intuitively. John and I tend to be pretty mercurial. ... I attribute that to an opposite choice of recreational chemicals. For us that would be coffee. They appeared to be stoned much of the time.”
“The Else” has been putting smiles on the faces of both TMBG fans and critics since it was released on July 10. And the tour with guitarist Dan Solder Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller to promote TMBG’s 12th disc also has reaped favorable reviews.
Asked for examples of how the Dust Brothers collaboration worked, Linnell cites “Withered Hope,” a brassy, hip-hop-flavored tale of a Sad Sack who loves Withered Hope who loves Soul Mate, who loves ... a motorbike!
“The music is a rewritten version of (drum) loops they gave us. ... I began with a set of loops and started writing on top of that. We built it up some more, removed the actual samples and recorded it with our band.”
The Dust Brothers also were involved in another Linnell creation, “Upside Down Frown.” “That also started out as a drum loop they had given us,” says Linnell. “Originally, it wasn’t larded up with a rock band. I only grudgingly added a bass guitar to the first verse. It was just me over the drum loop.”
Was the title inspired by TMBG’s recent success with children’s music?
“No,” laughs Linnell. “It’s really about miscommunication, any relationship where you are projecting what you are not feeling. ... (Novelist) Rick Moody - who did `The Ice Storm,’ which was made into a movie - he wrote me a nice note. He called it a WASP anthem.”
Another standout pop tune from Linnell, “Climbing the Walls,” finds a guy cocksurely putting a teeth-grinding, nail-chewing, tail-chasing relationship behind him for a new “job” - climbing the walls. “It’s a funny lyric about someone in a desperate situation trying to spin it,” says Linnell.
And while Linnell allows that some of his songs have “a personal origin,” “Climbing the Walls” is not one of them. “Ideas tend to take flight on their own,” he says. “Then you stop worrying about the origin of the idea. Often you have a phrase and you’re not sure what you’re saying at first. Climbing the walls sounds funny when you say it. I wanted to focus on that.”
“The Else” also features the atmospheric “Careful What You Pack,” which Flansburgh wrote for “Coroline,” the latest fantasy horror film from Neil Gaiman (“Mirrormask”), which is due out next year. “Unfortunately, it didn’t make the opening credits,” says Linnell. “But we do have some (other) music in the film.”
Another engaging oddity is “Contrecoup,” written by Linnell at the request of Erin McKean, editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary. The amusing saga of a man who is brain damaged on the romantic rebound contains three words lexicologist McKean considers imperiled - contrecoup, limerent and craniosophic.
(For the record: Contrecoup is an injury that is the result of a secondary blow. Limerent means possessing an intense romantic desire for another person. The meaning of craniosophic - “learned in skulls,” literally - is less clear and has been used only in discussing phrenology.)
“She’s afraid they will fall out of the dictionary from lack of use,” says Linnell, “so she asks writers, poets and various creative persons to use them in their work.”