One of the most pleasant surprises about the Fox TV show Malcolm in the Middle is that the utterly wonderful theme song, "Boss of Me," and much of its underscore was written by They Might Be Giants. Not only that, several scenes in this hyper-stylized show use older TMBG gems like "Pencil Rain" to terrific comic effect. There's also a running gag concerning manic, beleaguered dad Hal's fondness for the wimpiest strains of '70s pop. One episode, in which Hal's teaching Malcolm how to skate, features several extended scenes based on Lipps, Inc.'s sublimely annoying "Funkytown" that will leave any viewer on the floor clutching their sides and gasping for air. So basically, the folks behind Malcolm in the Middle know how to use pop music to exaggerate and heighten the comedic impact of the scenes. Which makes it all the more surprising that the Malcolm in the Middle soundtrack is so disappointing. For one thing, the full-length version of "Boss of Me" isn't really very good at all. In its 30-second TV version, "Boss of Me" is an absolutely perfect pop song (the "You're not the boss of me now/And you're not so big" chorus is probably the most naggingly insistent TV-theme hook since the finger snaps in the Addams Family theme), and most importantly, just exactly as long as it should be. They Might Be Giants know better than most that a song should never be longer than it has to (see the brilliant song-fragment medley "Fingertips" from 1992's Apollo 18 for proof), but even at a relatively skimpy 2:56, the extended re-recording feels flabby and listless. TMBG's other track, a studio version of a longtime concert favorite called "Older," fares much better. Otherwise, there's a handful of okay songs -- outtakes from recent Barenaked Ladies and Travis albums foremost among them -- and a lot of blandly inoffensive lightweight pop songs that were only barely (if at all) used in the show itself. The album's low point is Rednex's gimmicky 1994 single "Cotton Eye Joe," which was used well in the show but sounds incredibly annoying on its own. It's entirely possible to create a high-quality TV soundtrack album, but Malcolm in the Middle is a textbook example of how not to do one.
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AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason