It's time to dim all the lights, dig your painted toes into the shag carpet, and turn up the strobe. It's Fun to Steal, the second full-length disc from Mono Puff, is as velvety smooth as a Dove ice cream bar mixed with the mischievous crunch of an Eskimo pie. It's seventies-centric, which, given the current passion for the me-decade, means it's totally today, but it's more Shaft than Saturday Night Fever. The mood is funky, color-coordinated, loungy and sexy-and there's some bad-ass rock music in there too. The subject matter tackles timeless issues like heart-breaking, petty theft, bomb-making, love-making, the mysterious allure of the dashiki. There's even a heartfelt ode to the night watchman.
"We experimented a lot with rhythm," says Flansburgh from his Brooklyn apartment, "in about every way we could think of. We had DJ Five Star and Mauro [Refosco, Latin percussionist] and sampled ourselves banging stuff. I wanted to make an album that conveyed the spirit we made it in. Not that the song topics are all so light, but my personal all-time favorite records- whether it's Rocket to Russia or 3 Feet High and Rising - you can tell the people making the music were grooving to their creation. We wanted to make a party album - of a really interesting party."
It's Fun to Steal was recorded in New York City by John Flansburgh, best known as half of the duo They Might Be Giants, and an all-star cast of his Mono Puff syndicate of sound. Unlike Mono Puff's debut, Unsupervised, which grew out of Flansburgh's solo musings, this is a saga of a band at work and play. Flansburgh had put the "puff" in the pop world well before Sean "Puffy" Combs. For Unsupervised, Flansburgh compiled tunes he'd recorded for his other, hyper-indie entrepreneurial side project, the Hello CD Of The Month Club. Hello provided lucky subscribers with a year's worth of original EPs from artists Flansburgh likes and admires, including Andy Partridge, Mac from Superchunk, Freedy Johnston, Soul Coughing, the Residents, Magnetic Fields, and Flansburgh himself, under the moniker Mono Puff. In l995, Flansburgh mounted a showcase for Hello artists and put together a one-off Mono Puff line-up with drummer Steve Calhoon of Skeleton Key, Hal Cragin of Iggy Pop's band and Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers. That spectacular gig led to a record deal and the release of Unsupervised, in between TMBG projects, a year later. With Cragin and Calhoon on board and a mission to "spread sunshine and long-term hearing loss into the world," Flansburgh took Mono Puff on the road.
This time Flansburgh has enlarged the Mono Puff posse into a veritable groove collective. "Playing in New York, we keep the line-up loose, take advantage of all the great talent that's out there," says Flansburgh. On the album Mono Puff vets Cragin and Calhoon, Flansburgh is joined by keyboardist Joe McGinty, creator of Losers Lounge, the twisted cabaret series that plays to wall-to-wall hipsters during its irregular runs in downtown Manhattan; DJ Five Star Spicy on the wheels of steel, who gives the work an old school flava; and vocalist Sister Puff, who can bring a Lillith-like lilt to a creepy cover like "Pretty Fly" (from the noir classic Night Of The Hunter) as easily as she can belt a Betty Wright song on stage.
When Flansburgh unleashed Unsupervised on a jaded and hungry world, rock critic Richard Gehr called Mono Puff "a skippy pop combo" that "sucks in the seventies and spits them out in tightly crafted polyester nuggets." These days Mono Puff is more soulful than skippy, but they're still expectorating. They'll be coming to your town, or somewhere nearby, this summer. Look for regional Mono Puff tour dates and guerrilla in-store appearances around They Might Be Giants' never ending road trip.
Song per song
"was recorded mostly at home," says Flansburgh. "This song is based on a couple of true stories, only one of which I am happy to say, happened to me."
IT'S FUN TO STEAL
"I'm a big fan of New Orleans soul, which is so different and so under-acknowledged compared to Motown or Atlantic. We tried to incorporate that feel into this track."
"Nobody had any hearing left by the end of this session. I've never recorded this loud before."
MR. HUGHES SAYS
"A love song and a list song combined. The lyric in the chorus quotes a poem by Langston Hughes."
"...is about the comfort found in an insular existence..."
TASTE THE BASS
"Hal Cragin put this track together. It's our Quiet Storm track"
"Sister Puff sings most of this. It's a tribute to New York and that original Van McCoy version of disco. The rap group Double Dong did the human beat box and the dropped in vocal lines."
"DJ Five Star Spicy lets his freak flag fly on this track. In the interest of name-dropping, Joe McGinty is playing Donald Fagen's electric piano - without permission I might add, which we uncovered while working at Fagen's studio."
"is also a strange composite of true stories, but everybody knows some story like this."
HILLBILLY DRUMMER GIRL
"is a cover. I first hear this song at a Pussywillows show, and took about a year before I found out it was written by Scott McCaughey. The combination of reckless fun and total dullness reminds me a lot of my life on the road."
"My father is a Modernist architect, and I grew up around a lot of dashiki wearing hipsters. It's such a wild kind of dress- it always amazed me it was in mainstream fashion.
"Sister Puff takes it outside. We first heard this song in the film "Night Of The Hunter." If it has ever appeared on disc before is an open question, but it's haunting beauty made it an irresistible cover."
I JUST FOUND OUT WHAT EVERYBODY KNOWS
"...is a break up song."
"I used to park cars as a teenager. I always liked it. I was the guy in the little booth. That's where I learned how to play the guitar."