The disappointing new album; we’ve all been there. You would spend months anticipating a new disc by a group you really like, rush to the store on release day to buy it, take it home, turn on the stereo, and…you’re not really feeling it. Alright, so maybe that first part doesn’t happen anymore, but still, we know the feeling of being disappointed and wondering what happened, whether the artist lost “it” or if your tastes are changing. Off the top of my head: Cydonia by The Orb. A Hundred Days Off by Underworld. Good News For People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse. Pressure Chief by Cake. The Altogether by Orbital. To the Five Boroughs by the Beastie Boys. Human After All by Daft Punk. La Cucaracha by Ween. None of them are particularly bad (well Human After All kinda sucked), but all of them were albums I tried to talk myself into. “If there was only like…two more great songs on this one”. “It’s a good album, it’s just that all their others are great”. Sometimes certain albums just mean a lot to you for whatever reason and it’s impossible for an artist to replicate that.
Mink Car was always my go-to example for this phenomenon. If you aren’t a fan of They Might Be Giants or you haven’t been for long, you may not be aware of just how particular TMBG fans are. They’re a band that have been cursed, in a way; they started out as a duo who relied a lot on tape effects (see: “Rhythm Section Want Ad”), used a lot of accordion, and tended to get weird or nonsensical often. Later on they turned into a 5-piece rock band, allowing their power-pop tendencies to really shine, and made albums like John Henry and Factory Showroom, showcases of great sounding, inspired, left-of-center rock, and…their fans couldn’t stop talking about how great the old records here. In effect, by getting better, they got worse. Can’t blame ’em though – it would be odd for a band signed to a major label to continue on with a drum machine when real drummers are out of work everywhere, just like it’s weird when bands who have achieved some success stick with a “lo-fi” aesthetic to stay true to their roots or whatever. Really, both John Henry and Factory Showroom are great albums, and I think the fans eventually realized that too.
TMBG got dropped by Elektra in 1996; as the story often goes, the person who originally signed the band wound up leaving, and the band didn’t really want to do everything the label was asking. This probably would’ve been a good time for them to break up (if they were ever going to), but instead the following five years, up until they released Mink Car, were maybe the busiest in the band’s history. Both Johns did albums on their own, Linnell with the endearingly slight State Songs, and Flansburgh with a new band called Mono Puff. They hooked up with Restless Records and released Severe Tire Damage, a bizarre live album that was only recorded half-live, with a whole suite of bootleg-quality improvised songs somewhat based on “Planet of the Apes”. Their next album was called Long Tall Weekend and it was released exclusively through eMusic, a move that in retrospect was revolutionary (they were the first established band to release an album that way), though I remember it pissing off a lot of people at the time. Not everyone had internet access back then, and those that did probably didn’t have CD burners, and besides the idea of putting a credit card online was still kinda scary. TMBG knew this, and I think they held back a little – Long Tall Weekend was easily their worst studio album at the time. Comprised mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut for Factory Showroom, it’s low on hooks and low on effort; there are some good songs (“Rat Patrol”, “Lullaby to Nightmares”, actually a John Henry outtake), but it sounds like the eMusic idea came first and the album second. But I think their fans understood that. Their music continued to be hard to get ahold of – they did a lot more through eMusic, including an EP and a monthly service in which subscribers could hear a bunch of demos and other stuff from the vault. They soundtracked a magazine, story by story (also low-effort, but pretty entertaining). I think the Malcolm in the Middle theme song was done around this time, too. And so on.
This was all going on when I was getting into the band, so I remember this well. Between the fans I knew and the ones I saw on message boards, the consensus was that TMBG needed to stop dicking around and release something that people could y’know, hold in their hands and put in their stereo. But Mink Car was doomed from the start. First of all, it wound up with a release date of 9/11/2001, supremely unlucky for any band, especially for one straight out of Brooklyn. Secondly, the fans had heard a lot of the material already. Between Long Tall Weekend, the accompanying EP, Severe Tire Damage, the McSweeney’s disc, and the “Boss of Me” single, a bunch of these songs were released already. Some of these songs had been played live for years. And if you subscribed to They Might be Giants Unlimited, you already had most of these songs. As far as I can tell the only truly new song of the 17 on here was “Hopeless Bleak Despair”. Yes, a lot of them were re-recorded for Mink Car, but often in ways that made them worse – “Cyclops Rock” drops the ska part and instead includes a truly ugly bridge, “Older” replaces the guitars with a couple of horns that’ll likely get on your nerves (a rauschpfeife and a sarrusophone, according to the wiki), “Another First Kiss” gets turned into a wimpy pop ballad, and “She Thinks She’s Edith Head”, now on its 4th appearance on a TMBG release, feels sapped of energy. Not helping the cause was the press release, more or less claiming that this was a return to the sound of Flood, their most popular album, and therefore the one their fans most likely had an irrational emotional connection to.
Well, that’s what happens when you give TMBG too much time to think. They’ve always been a band that have worked well with constraints, and I think the consensus was that they just overthought this one. Mink Car Is full of guest appearances and features different producers on every track. There’s almost no cohesion, with each song sounding like it was recorded in a different session, as though the band has no idea what sound they’re going for. It’s full of post-production effects like drum loops and record scratches, sounds that are undeniably attached to a certain time frame. The fans poked holes in nearly every song here, deriding them for being dumb novelty stuff or too far outside their comfort zone. Which of course only proves that TMBG really couldn’t win. God only knows why “Shoehorn With Teeth” or “Chess Piece Face” get a pass but “Wicked Little Critta” doesn’t. Why the goofing off on “Spyder” is funny and whimsical but the goofing off on “Mr. Xcitement” is embarrassing. I guess it really is all in the ear of the beholder but it sure feels a bit like certain albums connecting at a certain age; I’ve always thought They Might Be Giants were a great band but they seem especially great when you’re a teenager.
Nowadays Mink Car is the midpoint in their career, about halfway between their debut album and Glean, their latest. Certainly the weight of expectation and nostalgia is lifted, and I can’t remember what the original “First Kiss” sounded like anyway, so it’s time for a fresh listen. And, surprise – it actually sounds pretty good. Concerns that they’ve normalized a bit are valid, but that’s been true since John Henry, and besides, they had just turned 40, and thus I think are allowed something straightforward and sweet like “Another First Kiss” once in a while (I just listened to the Severe Tire Damage version and it’s…not much of a song at all). Sure, it doesn’t all work – “Older” is the kind of song you only need to listen to once, and it’s hard to miss the big “INSERT CHORUS HERE” sign on “Working Undercover For the Man”. But aren’t all TMBG albums a little spotty?
Truth be told, all the hallmarks of the best TMBG stuff is there – sublime power pop from Linnell (“Bangs”, “Finished With Lies”, “Hovering Sombrero”), and neat genre pastiches from Flansburgh (“Drink!”, “Mink Car”, a 21st-Century cover of Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh”). The best song is a total curveball – “Man, It’s So Loud in Here”, a nightclub-ready banger that’s a spot-on imitation of every over-the-hill artist who went electronic in an attempt to win over a young audience. It all comes together on one absolute corker of a chorus that transforms it from parody to something incredible (see also: “Friends” by Ween). The other best song is “My Man”, which features the sort of shimmering, off-center melody that Linnell has proven so great at over the years (the lyrics, about the internal thoughts of a paralyzed man, are really depressing if you think about them).
And yet, it remains seen as that sort of disappointing album, something that got unfairly kicked around and never re-evaluated. Hell, I even disliked this one when I got it, mostly because it wasn’t Flood. That’s the price of making something brilliant – I thought this year’s Modest Mouse album was pretty good, but I’ve yet to read a review that doesn’t mention The Lonesome Crowded West, which has got to be frustrating for a band that’s clearly putting a lot of effort into what they’re doing. They Might Be Giants released so much great stuff in a row that it’s inevitable they’d take it on the chin at some point, but they bounced back. The year after, the band released their first album for children (No!), which wound up being a surprising success, allowing the band a second (and I’ve heard, more lucrative) career. Though you may blush at listening to albums intended for children, the stuff on these albums resemble the early days more than anything else they’ve done. I guess the great ones can’t be kept down.