No bunch of hipsters worth its Polyrock collection would admit to making dance-punk, but they know who they are. And whether they like it or not, it’s time for all these beat-crazy New Yorkers to put aside their cred for a moment and ponder an important question: Does disco suck?
If the collective answer is no, then we know we’re dealing with an honest bunch, and we’ll stop poking fun at them. If the answer is maybe, then we’ll need to determine whether these folks are hopelessly wishy-washy or just lacking strong leadership. Perhaps one of those teambuilding workshops in the woods or a simulated boot camp would help. If the answer is yes, however, then they’re all lyin’ sons-a-bitches. Because although disco may suck in the broader scheme of things, dance-punkers know deep down that they need it the same way Blondie needed it.
Why the sudden need to see where we all stand? Blame it on Out Hud. The New York–by–way–of–Sacramento, Calif., quintet earned its place in the dance-punk pantheon with 2002’s S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D., a collection of eclectic, multilayered grooves born of smart jam sessions, sweaty basement shows, and a love for recording-studio details. The disc was certainly Californian in its outlook: a little loose, a little optimistic, and ultimately free of any Brooklyn elitism.
Like its more funk-crazed brother/sister outfit, !!!, Out Hud understood that the secret to getting indie kids to dance is to keep them from looking at each other. Keep ’em focused on the stage and suddenly it’s Studio 54 up in here (albeit with drabber clothes and fewer drugs). This requires an actual band, with actual musicians whom people can get geeked about. The performers are just as important as the songs. The technique is as much a magnet as the hooks. The ass-shaking is a fortunate, if calculated, side effect.
But even though both bands exploited and exploded the Rodgers/ Edwards/Thompson template for live dance music, neither truly made the leap into full-blown disco until Out Hud released Let Us Never Speak of It Again last month. As might be expected, the album is oh–so–New York: precise, hard-edged, and full of attitude. It makes the case that disco doesn’t have to suck. But it’s not some grand statement of purpose. Speak sounds instead like an attempt by Out Hud main man Justin Vandervolgen—who, along with bassist Nic Offer and guitarist Tyler Pope, shares membership in !!!—to be more counterintuitive than anyone else on the scene.
That’s exactly the kind of thing that happens when a talented group finds itself on the front end of a genre that’s hitting its saturation point. The obvious step would’ve been for Out Hud to pick up where S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. left off, perhaps with grooves that were more dubby or more Can-influenced than before—in other words, what !!! tried a bit of on last year’s Louden Up Now. Instead, Vandervolgen willingly flirts with Clubland cheesiness, locking down the tempos, piling on the retro touches, and putting vocalists Phyllis Forbes and Molly Schnick out front to deliver chirpy melodies.
Although the results are uneven, the experiment is far from a disaster. Vandervolgen thrives on manipulating the simple things, from the echo of a snare hit to the precise timing of a bass riff. Take, for instance, Speak’s first real song, “It’s for You.” On a basic level, it’s a spacey, no-frills dance track with girlish vocals that seem directly inspired by Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” The beat is as insistent as the lyrics are minimalist: “He’s up to something/ She’s up to something/And I can’t breathe/And I can’t breathe.”
But upon closer, more academic inspection, the song is remarkable. No piece of percussion is overused. The bass and guitar are perfectly restrained. The synths never wander away or noodle, and everything has an exact place in the mix. It’s the kind of track that, if heard by a pop star’s handlers, can lead to a six-figure production deal. Ditto for “One Life to Leave,” the more rocked-up number that immediately follows. Vandervolgen knows how to fill up a measure. Better still, he often does it without any shame for his disco devotion.
About halfway through the disc, he finally throws the dance-punkers a bone. “The Song So Good They Named It Thrice” is actually almost as good as its title suggests, as far as extended dance jams go. A tribal drum loop and layered, droning guitars give way to a crisp electro breakdown, and over the next six minutes, the song reconstructs itself into an edgy groove trip worthy of the faster tracks on S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D.. (“Hair Dude, You’re Stepping on My Mystique” comes to mind.) But unlike those efforts, “Thrice” also wouldn’t sound out of place in a megaclub’s biggest room, moving a crowd of people more interested in themselves than the music. Indie kids? You can dance. Clubgoers? Pay attention.
The few problems on Speak come when Vandervolgen strays too far from both the beat and the punk. In “2005: A Face Odyssey,” for instance, he shoves his dub instincts through a thick ’80s filter, allowing lots of quasi-cute electronic effects to fill up spaces that he would typically leave unsullied. Likewise, the maudlin, string-heavy intro to “How Long” seems superfluous, especially when it gives way to the meat of the song: a sparse midtempo funk workout that features some nicely restrained slap bass by Offer. And the nearly 12-minute “Dear Mr. Bush, There Are Over 100 Words for Shit and Only 1 for Music. Fuck You, Out Hud,” sounds like a dumping ground for all the Chemical Brothers tendencies that Vandervolgen didn’t want to indulge elsewhere. The track is still a worthy excursion, though, mostly because Offer’s bass carries enough attitude to serve as a counterweight.
But the album’s greatest musical triumph might be the set-closing “The Stoked American.” Vandervolgen slows down the beat, adorns it with a chiming synth hook, and keeps the whole thing at a very tidy 3:15. Forbes and Schnick deliver detached lyrics about time present and time past, and they exercise that arch sense of humor the band usually reserves for song titles: “If I had back/All the time I’ve lost/I’d spend it with me again/But this time/We’d have more fun.” It’s a sign that Out Hud might fancy a slow dance once in a while. But it’s also the band’s way of saying that cowbells, hand claps, and funky bass lines all have their place—and that disco is nothing to worry about: It’s just one way of moving among many. Hear that, dance-punkers? Love your disco, and love it in the light.CP