Of all the bands absolutely loved by music critics in the past 20 years or so, perhaps none seem more darling or capable of doing no wrong than the guys in They Might Be Giants. The band scored a hit in the 80s with the inescapably catchy “Istanbul, Constantinople” and hit again in the late 90s with their theme work for “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Daily Show,” all the while releasing excellent albums like “John Henry” and “Apollo 18.”
All of which is why I’m surprised that I was a little disappointed with their newest effort, “Mink Car.” For me, I think the problems with TMBG’s latest can be summed up with two words and then two other hyphenated words: too much drum-machine.
I may be wrong on this, but I blame it all on Mike Doughty, the singer and songwriter behind the band Soul Coughing. He helps out with vocals on the fourth track “Mr. Xcitement,” and no doubt brought the same drum-machine that his band has used on many of their singles.
And I imagine that John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the technological musical geniuses behind TMBG who invented Dial-A-Song (call 1-718-387-6962 to hear a free random Giants track), said, “Ooh, cool, a drum- machine! Let’s use it on all our songs!”
Thank God they didn’t, because the songs without the hardcore break beats (about half the album) are the real gems. The first song, “Bangs,” about a girl whose hair hangs down over her eyes, has a 60s feel like a mixture of The Byrds, The Partridge Family, Chicago and … They Might Be Giants. Melodic, phased out guitar and poppy drums back the intelligently catchy lyrics like, “And though I like you anyway, check out your haircut/A proscenium to stage a face that needs no makeup.”
The next track is equally as catchy, and is the best song on the album, and easily my favorite Giants song since “Dirt Bike.” “Cyclops Rock” has a sound reminiscent of the Pixies’ best pop material, with a melding of distorted guitars and mixed male/female vocals.
The next song begins the dance-a-thon. After beat-heavy “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” and others, however, there’s a wonderful break with the bittersweet “Another First Kiss,” and the inspired “Hovering Sombrero.”
The most popular song from “Mink Car,” will no doubt be “Drink!” Powered by an accordion, the song takes it’s style from the kind of melancholy drinking songs you’d expect to hear old sailors singing in pubs along the docks, complete with the sing-a-long alcoholic’s chorus.
For fans of TMBG, “Mink Car” should be bought, as it’s an important, well-crafted step in the evolution of the band.
For those who haven’t heard They Might Be Giants before, however, one of the earlier albums would serve as a better intro to the band.