by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, October 2001
They Might Be Giants
Albums? Who needs albums? They Might Be Giants has so many projects on its schedule that an album seems like a luxury. Already, the group has its highest visibility in years, thanks to its work scoring Fox's acclaimed series "Malcolm in the Middle." The bratty theme, "Boss of Me," is even a radio hit overseas. Meanwhile, other TMBG tunes have recently graced "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "The Oblongs" and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. But that's just the beginning. There's the upcoming documentary film. There's the experimental, 37-track CD the band recorded to accompany an issue of McSweeney's, a Brooklyn-based literary journal. There's Long Tall Weekend, a MP3-only album of rarities, plus TMBG Unlimited, an interactive fanclub which compiles monthly rarities for subscribers to download. Solo records burn up further energy, and, of course, the legendary Dial-A-Song hotline hums onward.
"We've done a lot of other things in the past couple of years," says TMBG co-leader John Flansburgh. "It's interesting to take on other kinds of projects. We've done things where if the opportunity hadn't arose, I wouldn't have even thought of it. But making albums is very important to us, spiritually as a band. We love making records."
Speaking from his getaway house in the Catskills Mountains, Flansburgh is a first-rate pitchman, a rambling intellect who has a cheerful lecture ready on almost any topic. Ask him one question, and he'll anticipate (and answer) your next three follow-ups in reply. For now, he's focused on Mink Car, the band's first true studio album since 1996's Factory Showroom. It's a typically wry dose of eclecticism, stretching between spunky aggression ("Cyclops Rock"), thumping dance beats ("Man, It's So Loud in Here"), spicy exotica ("Yeah Yeah"), Bacharach-esque pop ("Mink Car"), a surprisingly straightforward love song ("Another First Kiss") and a rapping cameo by former Soul Coughing singer M. Doughty. The backing tracks add an awkward techno element at times, but "Finished With Lies," "Bangs" and "Hovering Sombrero" update TMBG's classic style with their hyperactive chord changes, whimsically obsessed lyrics and, yes, those infamous nasal harmonies.
Mink Car finds Flansburgh and partner John Linnell supported by the so-called "Band of Dans": guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Dan Weinkauf and drummer Dan Hickey. Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and Cerys Matthews (Catatonia) also turn up, while another track adds guest musicians playing the Rauschpfife and Saroussophone, two arcane instruments from the classical era. Elsewhere, "Bangs" recruits famed producers Clive Langor and Alan Winstanley.
"Every song has a different set of features," Flansburgh says. "We always let the song guide us as to how the instrumentation and approach should work. Having started as just a duo, we got used to the idea that the best way to make a song is to do nothing more than what's called for. If a song doesn't need a guitar, I would be the first to say 'Let's leave this off.' Too often when you hear records or see shows, there's a notion that the band's sound has to be represented in every arrangement. That really doesn't make sense. When you write a song, the song's boss. You gotta respect the song."
The group's next batch of customized tunes is already finished. This time, it's an unusual children's album called No! The still-unscheduled release shows yet another side of this multi-faceted band, whose many ventures seem to exhilarate Flansburgh.
"Frankly, we've been triple-booked for a long time," he admits. "We've got entirely too much work to do. But it's all interesting stuff, so it's good to be busy."
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