After a two-year gap, They Might Be Giants released a new studio album with 2001’s Mink Car. Having been variously known in its gestation as ‘Yes’, ‘Secret Mountain Laboratory’ and ‘Unreliable Narrator’ (in a self-referential moment for TMBG, given their use of that trope in many of their songs), Mink Car ended up nearly becoming the group’s ‘lost’ work, due to the sheer misfortune of its release coinciding with a national tragedy.
The relationship of the group’s co-leads – John Linnell and John Flansburgh – with their label Elektra had deteriorated to the point that, in 1996, they ended up parting ways with the company. Despite not being signed to anybody, this did not stop the Johns from forging ahead with creating more of their distinctive brand of music. Getting ahead of the trend and leaving so many of their contemporaries behind, TMBG moved to adopting digital formats, putting out their online-only Long Tall Weekend in 1999.
As well as playing gigs, the group had also been busy working on a variety of projects for TV and film, such as providing the theme for 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, as well as re-recording Bob Mould’s track ‘Dog On Fire’ as the title music for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. In addition, John and John also collaborated on a special issue of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal bringing together numerous different writers and artists, with TMBG producing a special CD to accompany that edition.
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One of the tracks – ‘Bangs’ – actually ended up also opening Mink Car, which was released by Restless Records, who had signed the group up, having been impressed by their output. Writer Zadie Smith penned an accompanying short story for the McSweeney’s version, entitled ‘The Girl With Bangs’ – it was during a UK event, when Smith read her short story over an instrumental version of the song being played live by the group, that she had to explain to the Johns that in her home country, ‘bangs’ are actually called a ‘fringe’, so the audience would have no idea what they were on about.
Despite Smith’s fears about being two peoples divided by a common language, ‘Bangs’ is perfectly understandable to a British audience, with Linnell and Flansburgh making great use of imagery, in detailing the hairstyle as a “proscenium to stage a face that needs no makeup”, and describing the bangs as they “swing concordant angles” when the subject inclines her head. The whole track is light, playful and poppy, with a key change helping kick things into overdrive approximately halfway through.
A change of pace comes in ‘Cyclops Rock’, with its tolling bell intro, launching straight into heavy attack guitars, as well as references to Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, with the subject feeling he has lasted through a toxic relationship in the same way the Chucky always seems to survive against all the odds. An unexpected cameo comes towards the climax of the song, with Cerys Matthews of Catatonia delivering lyrics that were originally intended for Joe Strummer of The Clash, virtually screaming them out as she does so.
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‘Man, It’s So Loud In Here’ is a synth-intensive, high octane love letter to ‘80s electro pop which is ridiculously catchy, all thanks to the vital input of producer Adam Schlesinger from Fountains Of Wayne, who entirely changed the sound of the song from its rock-based conception. ‘Mr. Xcitement’ is a bit of an oddity, being a spoken-word piece delivered by Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing, and live scratching provided by The Elegant Too, all over the repetitive backing of “Café con pan”, which is Spanish for “coffee with bread”.
A further unusual development comes with ‘Another First Kiss’, a TMBG staple song usually delivered at a far quicker tempo; here, however, the stripped-down sound and much slower pace makes this into a tender, honest love song, free of any twists, lyrical wordplay, or any other traits which the Johns are usually known for. The sheer candour, sweetness and openness of ‘Another First Kiss’ is genuinely touching, with the softness and vulnerability evoking Sixpence None The Richer’s 1998 release, ‘Kiss Me’.
(Ab)normal service is resumed with ‘I’ve Got A Fang’, giving us a protagonist with a dental oddity, partly inspired by the 1970s Ruby-Spears Productions cartoon Fangface. With the relentless ride cymbal and driving rock guitar, it could barely be any more of a contrast with ‘Another First Kiss’. ‘Hovering Sombrero’ – originally written way back during production of Flood – appears to be literally about an airborne piece of headgear at first glance, but the lyrics invite the listener to come up with their own interpretation.
Covers are a firm and welcome part of the TMBG repertoire, including pieces like ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’, and the educational tune ‘Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas’; here, the Johns add another one to their arsenal, with ‘Yeh Yeh’ – a solid take on Georgie Fame’s ‘Yeah Yeah’. In ‘Hopeless Bleak Despair’, we have yet another example of TMBG’s penchant for transposing dark subject matter with an upbeat musical sound which wholly undercuts any possible loss of hope.
‘Drink!’ is a further stylistic shift, being a mix of sea shanty and drinking song, combining in the joyfulness of getting inebriated in company with the awfulness which can ensue when someone risks taking things just that little bit too far. With ‘My Man’ John and John counterpoint the light, bubbly synth chimes – not dissimilar to Owl City’s 2009 ‘Fireflies’ – with the unbelievably bleak scenario in the lyrics, in which we get an individual having a conversation with his own body after realising he is paralysed and will never walk again, but all of the elements combine in such a strangely inoffensive manner.
With ‘Older’ being another TMBG classic, the group gives us a re-recording here, opening with an unexpected combo of Rauschpfife and Saroussophone. The track demonstrates so clearly their mastery of lyrical playfulness, with the passing of time marked with each passing line, as well as signalling mortality in the orchestration with a merciless drumbeat. In ‘Mink Car’, the Johns offer us up a casual lounge style, while delivering the surreal imagery of a car covered in animal fur being driven by a guitar.
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Linnell and Flansburgh go back to their Massachusetts roots with ‘Wicked Little Critta’, using lots of regional slang being delivered in a Boston dialect, with the end product remixed by The Elegant Too, giving it a very urban sound. In ‘Finished With Lies’, we have someone trying to turn up a new leaf, but finding himself subject to scepticism, with a strong ‘boy who cried wolf’ sense. Penultimate track ‘She Thinks She’s Edith Head’ namechecks the famous Hollywood designer who was parodied as Edna Mode in The Incredibles. Rounding out the album, ‘Working Undercover For The Man’ reveals a covert operative faking it as a rock star.
Part of Mink Car’s production was documented in Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns, AJ Schnack’s feature which profiled the group for their twentieth anniversary in 2002. We even got to see snippets of They Might Be Giants giving an in-store performance at a branch of Tower Records located in Lower Manhattan the night before Mink Car’s official release date: Tuesday September 11th, 2001.
Even if the originally-mooted plan to put Mink Car out on Wednesday 15th August had actually come to fruition, and the album had not been immediately overshadowed by the horror of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, the end result would have likely been the same: Restless Records quickly collapsed in the aftermath of 9/11, and the album consequently ended up going out of print, which was a first for anything in the TMBG discography, making it hard to get hold of.
They Might Be Giants faced an uncertain future, due to the loss both of Mink Car and their record label, but they ended up entering their second decade in the music business on an unexpected high, when the picked up the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media in 2002, with their song ‘Boss Of Me’ – which was featured on the European release of Mink Car – having been used as the theme for Fox sitcom Malcolm In The Middle.
Luckily, the rights issues were subsequently resolved, and Mink Car is now available digitally via the official TMBG website. The very timing of its initial appearance being a case of the most extreme bad luck actually resulted in an unexpected development a decade later: to raise money for first responders, a group of artists got together in 2011 and put out Mink Car Cover, recording their interpretations of the original album, with all the proceeds going to the Fire Department of New York’s official charitable organisation, the FDNY Federation.
Mink Car was released on 11th September 2001.