September 27, 2001

A Giant-Sized Dose of Fun

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The two Johns from Brooklyn are back with more musical anarchy. Mink Car is They Might Be Giants’ first studio release in five years, and it proves that even giants can keep growing. The band has become even better masters of whatever it is they do, consistently prompting listeners to wonder what they’re singing about, while dodging categorization.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell are joined here by the band of Dans. The schizophrenic percussion of Dan Hickey is a versatile force, which allows for the songs on Mink Car to jump genres as often as Reverend Jerry Falwell puts his foot in his mouth. The Latin-inflected percussion of “Yeh Yeh” somehow doesn’t sound out of place, even when followed by the pure Costellian (Elvis Costello, that is) pop of “Hopeless Bleak Despair.”

Dan Weinkauf’s bass maintains the album’s bounce without ever becoming obtrusive. The low end of the surreal “Hovering Sombrero” keeps the tune’s slinky pace with an upfront, walking bassline. Even the electric-oriented “My Man” would feel empty without Weinkauf’s steady thick strings. The final Dan, Mr. Miller, fulfills his duties on the six-string with an impeccable sense of simplicity, adding just the right amount of melodic lines and unexpected chord changes.

The wonderfully absurd ode to forehead hair, “Bangs,” opens the disc with hooks sure to quickly make the tune a fan favorite. “Man, It’s So Loud In Here” is a techno song mocking techno, in typical Giants fashion (“I’ve got something to say/ Man, it’s so loud in here/ When they stop the drum machine and I can think again/ I’ll remember what it was.”) An odd choice for the first single, “Man…” may give radio-listeners the wrong idea. M. Doughty, the charismatic vocalist for the superb NYC-based outfit Soul Coughing (who unfortunately disbanded last year) provides some of his unique, hip-hop inspired vocals to the song “Mr. XCitement.” The track also features Chris Maxwell from the Elegant Too on programming and bass duties.

At times, the Johns seem to go a bit too far in embracing the bizarre. For instance, the psychedelic “I’ve Got A Fang” and its interesting soundscapes (especially the mid-song jazz break) are lost behind the annoyingly low-spoken and pointless lyrics (“Glistening white triangular tooth/ Open up a can of tomato juice/ I’ve got a fang”). At other times, its their skewed approach to songwriting that makes the songs so unusually stunning. The lilting, Celtic-influenced “Drink!” catches the ear with its distinctive imagery, exemplified by the line “you could be a float on the Fourth of July/ based on your theme of ‘Wallflowers Grown Wild.'”

“Another First Kiss” gets a radio-friendly makeover from the original, less sentimental version off of Severe Tire Damage. With a chorus that will soon be duct-taped to your brain, it is the obvious candidate for single-hood, but the lyrics’ seriousness almost seems out of place. Even the strummy acoustic guitar comes off as more fitting for Dawson’s Creek than the anti-commercial Giants.

The title track ties everything together, with its soulful horns a la the ’70s and the usual verbal obscurity (“It’s knocking off my diamond wig/ knocking me down onto the platinum ground”).

Some selections on Mink Car may sound familiar to diehard fans. “Older,” “She Thinks She’s Edith Head,” and “Working Undercover for the Man” (which was released on the TMBG website as an EP) have all been extensively road-tested and ingrained in fans’ minds. But despite its well-polished sound, “Drink!” may disappoint some for lacking the energy with which the band performs the song live.

Mink Car is guaranteed to please any TMBG fan, simultaneously recalling the classic Flood and taking a few giant leaps forward (excuse the pun). John and John continue to make music that offers a break from the often unpleasant reality. And as long as life keeps throwing us curveballs, songs about hair and floating hats will always have an eager audience.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas