It's Fun to Steal
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Merriam Webster defines kitsch as "sentimental, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts," but there's a certain sincerity and refreshing absence of hypocrisy in the current, decidedly kitschy "lounge music" revival that at least partially explains the genre's appeal to a modern audience. Mono Puff's John Flansburgh, formerly one half of mid-'80s geek-rock band They Might Be Giants, seems willing to embrace the theory, anyway, as his band gleefully tears into the material on It's Fun to Steal with a goofy, unaffected eclecticism. The absurdity is rampant, with songs about dashikis and bomb making, funk jams that rhyme "New York City" with "extra crispy," or a monotone voice saying "this song is called creepy" in a song called "Creepy," just for redundancy's sake. Mono Puff succeed in taking Webster's "pretension" out of the kitsch equation, and grab onto a silly vibe that may just continue the revitalized popularity of piano bars and questionable clothing decisions into the third millennium. --Matthew Cooke
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The songs are generally less smart-alecky and more musically ambitious than his usual TMBG work. He happily indulges in his funk/dance/R&B influences, which he doesn't really get to do with fellow 'Giant John Linnell (except on occasional tracks like 1992's "The Guitar" and 1996's "S-E-X-X-Y," as well as "Clap Your Hands" and "John Lee Supertaster" from 2002's NO!). The upbeat funk number "Creepy," based on a couple of true stories (one of which happened to Flans), kicks off the disc with the ear-grabbing opening line, "Town drunk's angry daughter and all her hospital friends are coming downstate to meet us." "It's Fun to Steal" is a wonderful slice of New Orleans soul; despite the amoral title, which actually refers to the stealing and breaking of hearts, it's a moralistic song in which Flansburgh subtly condemns a cheating "ladies' man" ("It's fun to steal, it's fun to fool around, but only once will I warn you this way ... you'll find out there's a price to be paid"). "Mr. Hughes Says" is a funky, upbeat love song/list song inspired by Langston Hughes' poem "Motto" ("Live and learn ... dig and be dug in return"). "Imaginary Friends" is a slow-funk jam about the comfort found in isolation. "I Just Found Out What Everybody Knows," a synth-heavy slow-funk jam sung by Flansy in a deep, ominous rumble, is an unusual break-up song with neat, short-story-like details ("When she tore me in half, my neighbors would smile / 'Cause that's all the fun they'd had in a while"). The disco track "Extra Krispy," with Sister Puff (aka Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser, whom Flansburgh married in 1996) on lead vocals, is a kooky valentine to New York City; and though she's no Donna Summer, she does a fine job. Like her husband, Robin has a sweet voice that makes up for in sheer versatility what it lacks in distinctiveness and power. The hilarious "Dashiki Lover," another disco number and combination love/list song, features both Flansy and Goldie on vocals; evoking the days of Andy Warhol's Factory, it name-drops everyone from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to "Rosemary's baby" and "my first-grade teacher." "Taste the Bass," written by Cragin, is a nice Quiet-Storm R&B instrumental. (The tuneless and plain-silly "Dedicated" hits the only bum note.)
Of course, the band delves into other styles besides funk, disco, and soul. "Backstabbing Liar," based on a composite of true stories, is a frothy punk-pop number that would have done the Clash and the Ramones proud. "Poison Flowers," about a mad bomber looking for a mate ("Who's going to build my death ray?"), is a New Wave-y track that sonically recalls David Bowie's classic "Heroes." The country-rock rave-up "Hillbilly Drummer Girl," written by Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, deals with the fun and the tedium of life on the road. "Pretty Fly," an a-capella cover of a creepy folk ballad from the 1955 film Night Of The Hunter, features only Goldwasser's layered vocals; okay, so she's no Joan Baez, but she's not bad, either. "Night Security," a lovely pop ballad which Flansburgh wrote (drawing on his early experience as a parking-lot attendant) but doesn't appear on, is made even classier by guest Barry Carl's resonant bass vocal.
Flansburgh not only reveals himself to be a talented multi-instrumentalist here (in addition to guitar, he also plays piano, organ, synthesizers, mellotron, drum samples, and "programming"): He and his band and the various guest performers tackle this material with so much skill, enthusiasm, and affection, that the results sound truly fresh rather than dated or musty; and at its best, It's Fun To Steal recalls the boldly eclectic pop of the Talking Heads and Blondie. Cheers, Flansy.
Getting back to the subject of the album itself, there is a lot to enjoy here. While much of the record has a funk sound to it, heavily ornamented with samples and "groovy" vocals (often from guest performers), there are also other styles covered here. A personal favorite of mine is the rocking "Backstabbing Liar" (which sounds like it could have fit on TMBG's Factory Showroom album). There are fewer covers on here than on Unsupervised, the only two being the Young Fresh Fellows' "Hillbilly Drummer Girl" and the folk song "Pretty Fly" from the movie "Night of the Hunter" (which is, incidentally, the worst song on the album; while Flansburgh's wife Robin "Sister Puff" Goldwasser delivers an excellent vocal performance, the music and lyrics are too stupid for the vocal to redeem it). Any TMBG fan should check out this album, as it gives a good indication as to what Flansburgh is capable of, even WITHOUT Linnell.
In my book, the CD's only flaw is that it doesn't have anything by John Linnell, but that's what you get with Mono Puff -- so I say pick this baby up post haste. It deserves a much lower number on Amazon's sales rank.