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New York Press - August 5-11, 1998, v.11, n.31

Mono Puff - It's Fun To Steal

Now that everyone's forgotten that They Might Be Giants exist, half of the duo has started a side project that will certainly be forgotten even more quickly. That doesn't mean Mono Puff is a bad band, they just sound exactly like what you'd expect -- half of They Might Be Giants. It's John Flansburgh and a bunch of friends, doing pretty much the same thing he does with John Linnell. He does it well, but just as the past few TMBG records have been largely ignored, It's Fun to Steal will probably go unnoticed by all but die-hard fans.

The fact that no-one cares is a shame, because the subversiveness of bands like TMBG was vital amid the corporate-controlled music of the 80s, and someone needs to carry on their grand tradition in the equally corporate-controlled 90s. Mono Puff is not that someone. While the two Johns deserve a lot of credit for pioneering goofy, subversive rock, they won't be the ones to carry it into the future. TMBG is a good band, but a middle-aged one. Middle-aged bands don't start revolutions, they start side projects.

Usually, a band member starts a side project either to do something completely different (James Iha) or because the main band has run out of ideas (Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel). Either way, the results are seldom stunning. In Flansburgh's case, the side project is fairly worthwhile, because the main band hasn't really lost anything over the years. He and Linnell still write good songs, and all in all have aged far better than most of their contemporaries. They really haven't run out of ideas, and they still put on a really fun live show. Besides, the Dial-A-Song is still just a local call to Brooklyn. The only thing that's changed over time for the two Johns is that they have the money to use a recording studio and other musicians, instead of just singing into a tape recorder while playing an accordion.

Not that there's anything wrong with singing your albums into a tape recorder. Production value is usually overrated, and excessive studio work tends to ruin bands. Flansburgh understands what Butch Vig doesn't, which is that a billion dollars in studio time doesn't make a record good. What does make a record good is something like the fake strings dropped into "Extra Krispy," which make what would be a fairly standard Flansburgh composition into the perfect stupid, funky disco tune. Mono Puff also explores the possibilities offered by just using loud, distorted guitar, and while that isn't a revelation for most bands, it offers a refreshing change from the keyboard-oriented nature of most of Flansburgh's work. Using multiple vocalists is also a smart move -- the modest career aspirations sung about in "Night Security" sound far better coming from a rumbling bass than they would in Flansburgh's biting, high-pitched voice.

If there was a reason not to do this album under the TMBG name, it escapes me. Maybe like Guided By Voices, they put out solo projects so they can get more than one album out in a year (TMBG's Severe Tire Damage comes out soon). Of course, like GBV, it doesn't really matter -- with or without Linnell, Flansburgh is one of those artists who just does one thing, and will probably keep doing it forever. As long as he does it well, under any band name, the fact that his moment of cultural significance has passed isn't really that important.