[10 September 2001]
Once upon a time, They Might Be Giants saved my life. Well, okay, not literally saved it, but they did offer me a sense of identity through music that I might not have found otherwise.
In my youth, I was a scattershot of musical interests, with an interest in hip-hop through my white, suburban fascination with breakdancing, a nerdy love of Dr. Demento and “Weird” Al, and a small tape collection that included Ray Parker Jr., Styx, Bobby Brown, and that classic of camp, Pac Man Fever. And then all of a sudden one night in 1989, I was flipping through the channels and came across a strange little song called “Ana Ng”. The video was being played on MTV’s short-lived Postmodern MTV, a precursor to the more successful 120 Minutes, and I was fascinated. It was goofy like a Dr. Demento song, but it had enough rock and pop sensibility that even my 14-year-old and musically uneducated mind could recognize it.
Immediately I knew I had to find their album and make the band mine. My first attempt to purchase the tape went awry. I was told by the local music store chain, Sound Warehouse, that they “didn’t carry that kind of music in their store.” This was a total shock to me. What did they mean, “that kind of music?” Despite having an intimate knowledge of social divisions in your average junior high class, I was pretty clueless about the politics and business that stratified the music industry. Eventually I was able to find Lincoln, the album that contained “Ana Ng”, at an independent record store. Not only did I have this bizarre new tape that was speaking to me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend, but it made me feel unique and a little bit special to have to go to such lengths to acquire it. I fell feet-first into the deep end of the murky pool of indie-ness.
Because of They Might Be Giants, I began to explore what “that kind of music”, which I had now adopted de facto as my kind of music, meant in terms of all the other music out there. I started watching Postmodern MTV and then 120 Minutes religiously. I began to read music magazines. Lincoln even afforded me my first attempt at musical criticism as I attempted to analyze and categorize for myself the different and disparate musical styles contained on the album. Eventually, I discovered a whole world of music that became as important to me as food and drink. One of the first additions to my new-born collection I made was They Might Be Giants’ first, self-titled album, ironically purchased at the same Sound Warehouse that had previously thwarted me. I even realized that my particularly quirky interests even ostracized me at times from the other people my age who were into “that kind of music”. By 1994/1995, when “alternative” music broke into the big time and dominated the charts and airwaves, I had that familiar “I was there first” feeling well entrenched.
The whole time I remained a die-hard TMBG fan. I went to concerts when they came to Colorado. I wore the tour T-shirts until the gaping holes made me dispose of them. I held on with pride to my inimitable John Flansburgh guitar pick, even going to the length of hiding it in such a secret place that I can’t find it even today (damnit). And as my musical horizons expanded, I held TMBG as my first true love.
Of course, They Might Be Giants circa 2001 is hardly the little known act they were back then. The release of 1990’s Flood, bolstered by the support of major label Elektra, helped expand their fan base exponentially, thanks to minor hits like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and their version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. “Istanbul” and another perennial favorite from Flood, “Particle Man”, were even adapted as cartoons for Steven Spielberg’s small screen success, Tiny Toons. The Two Johns have been featured a handful of times on NPR, played a feature role in one of those ABC John Stossel specials, and recently had major exposure with their song “Boss of Me” being chosen as the theme for the smash television hit, Malcolm in the Middle, including a music video broadcast on Fox during an episode of that show. Since their self-produced, independently released Bar/None/Restless album They Might Be Giants in 1986, TMBG have put out eleven proper albums, including a rarities collection, a live/greatest hits album, a retrospective double-disc set, an MP3-only album, and culminating in the recent release of this year’s Mink Car.
So, now that they’re calling Restless home again, how does Mink Car stack up against a long career of consistent success and an album that more or less helped me create my identity? Surprisingly well. If there’s any complaint that a TMBG fan could have against it, it’s that the album seems more contemporarily savvy than past efforts. Ever since John Henry, the first album that John Linnell and John Flansburgh recorded with a backing band (previous releases were performed entirely by the Johns and drum machines and were entirely studio affairs), there has been a trend toward more and more pop, and less and less goofy studio bells and whistles. This has resulted in a slightly more band-oriented sound in the songs that make it off the Dial-A-Song service and onto studio albums. In the process some of the uniquely zany, youthful charm has been lost and replaced with more “normal” song structures and instrumentation. The accordion has come to play second, if not third, fiddle to the guitar. But “normal” as reconceived by They Might Be Giants is a far cry above and beyond “normal” for any other pop or rock band.
Perhaps the most stand-out tracks are the ones that sound least like “typical” They Might Be Giants. Not that these are better and the others worse, but they definitely jump out at long-time listeners as continuing the Johns tradition of forging into new territories. This time around, however, they’re territories already covered extensively by previous artists. Take “Man, It’s Loud in Here”, for example. Recently performed live on Conan O’Brien’s show, the song is backed by an extremely New Order techno dance track and with Linnell’s singing reminding me immediately of Carter USM’s “While You Were Out”, it would almost sound like the horrible sell-out fans are constantly in fear of, no matter what the band. Except that if you check the lyric sheet, you get the joke. Of course! The song is about dance clubs and their proliferation and the incredibly disorienting noise they create, with the narrator singing “Baby, check this out / I’ve got something to say / When they stop the drum machine and I can think again / I’ll remember what it was.” Music as irony. Ah, yes, this is TMBG.
Then there’s “Mr. Xcitement”, a bizarre studio-produced tune that involves samples of horns from some of their musical collaborators, scratching and mixing by production duo The Elegant Too, and an impromptu vocal track laid down by Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty, whom TMBG have worked with in the past. The breakbeats combined with horns and the odd scratch sound sort of like Beck and the vocal provided by Doughty make the song disorienting. But TMBG has recently dug deep into the realm of collaboration, and if the results are this funky and fun, then it can’t be a bad thing. If that weren’t enough, “Mr. Xcitement” is immediately followed by “Another First Kiss” which is nothing more or less than . . . a straightforward pop love song?!? Any track that TMBG would lay down that could even be described as straightforward is a shock in and of itself, but a love song is simply strange for its ordinariness. And yet John and John have become master pop craftsmen over the years, and they manage to show even the Dr. Demento geeks like me that they’re just as capable of writing beautiful love tunes as they are of creating surreal soundscapes.
The rest of Mink Car spins back off into the outer space ether zone that is the home territory of They Might Be Giants. “I’ve Got a Fang” will remind longtime fans of the classic “Mr. Claw”. Revamped versions of “Older” and “She Thinks She’s Edith Head”, originally included on the MP3-only album Long Tall Weekend, are welcome old friends made new. “Bangs”, “Hopeless Bleak Despair”, and “Finished With Lies” are as classic TMBG as the band has ever released. And, despite the fact that it breaks ground with previous studio releases, Mink Car actually has a title track, a wonderfully retro song that sounds like the best of the worst ‘70s cornball lounge ballads, refashioned in TMBG’s standard opaque lyrics. In fact, as with most of their albums, Mink Car invites discussion about every track. If you want more info straight from the mouths of the Johns, check out their news site for notes on each song.
Mink Car will please just about all but the most picky of They Might Be Giants fans. Diverse, off-beat, strange, fun, and decidedly wonderful, it proves that TMBG haven’t really lost anything over the years and literally hundreds of songs and sound-bites that the band has produced. In fact, this album might be as approachable for casual listeners unfamiliar with their past work as anything since Apollo 18. Hell, it’s worth the fifteen bucks just to own the excellent CD insert design produced by The Chopping Block, a great looking spread set up to look like instructions for building a model car (yes, the thermos of coffee is included under the front seat). It might not be the album that saved my life, but its one in a long string of consecutively great albums, and it just might save your day.