As a society, we’ve come a long way. We think nothing of the possibility that Abe Lincoln might have been gay. It doesn’t bother us that Fox Sports dubs in mighty bat-cracking sounds when showing instant replays during baseball games. And we no longer expect folks to choose between the dance floor and the rock club.
Of course, the last has been true at least since the late ’70s, when a bunch of scenesters in London, Manchester, and New York welded angular postpunk to mirror-ball pop. The catch since then has been that you can lead a punk to disco, but you can’t make him enjoy himself: Pleasure, particularly the kind that comes from abandoning yourself to a big, stupid beat, has always been a hard sell to that portion of the punk-rock community that believes music shouldn’t be mindless. These days, any band that wants to turn a house show into a house party needs to maintain some ironic distance from its funky sounds—for example, using them as background for feminist theory.
Washington’s Q and Not U approaches its punk/dance hybrid slightly differently, using lyrics that recall Pavement at its most oblique and never settling too comfortably into a groove. The band has flirted with funkiness since its inception, but it was of the New Wave variety, which is like driving with your foot poised over the brake pedal, not sheer abandon. Plus, the drummer played too busily and the group never turned the bass up enough—even before it sacked the guy who played it. Q and Not U’s last LP, 2002’s Different Damage, is a fine document of a group edging toward ass-shaking, but it’s still more herky-jerky than heaven-bound.
On the new Power, the band seems to have recognized that less is more when you hit the floor. Drummer John Davis sharpens his focus, leaning on his high-hat and allowing himself to carry a simple beat. And singer Christopher Richards has discovered the secret to getting down while keeping up the cred: falsetto vocals. There’s still not enough low end, but Power shows signs that the future is looking funkier.
Album-opener “Wonderful People” is an up-with-cool-folks anthem on which Richards and multi-instrumentalist/co-vocalist Harris Klahr trade spiky guitar licks, switch off between high-pitched and normal vocals, and get a chorus to chant “Go run, go run run” with them. “Book of Flags,” “L.A.X.,” “7 Daughters,” and “Wet Work” are similarly danceable, even if Richards and Klahr tend to hew too close to New Wave orthodoxy with their slightly off-key, very on-rhythm vocals.
Still, there’s joy in that thar robot funk, courtesy some deep bass keyboards, especially on “Wet Work,” Richards’ ode to the pretty things we don’t notice. “Something beautiful happened in the church house, but it didn’t have to do with god,” he sings. “And all this beautiful is smuggled like a secret and it doesn’t have to be that way.” He and his band have never sounded so alive, so anthemic. Even Power’s slower numbers—the psych-poppy “Throw Back Your Head,” for instance, or the kinda-mathy “Dine”—are attractive in a sweaty, V-neck-sweater-wearing sort of way.
And yet there’s something about Q and Not U that always leaves me cold. It’s not that Richards’ voice sounds way too close to Perry Farrell’s horrible yelp. It’s not that no one in the band has yet managed to cure Davis of his Peart-isms. It’s that the group is so exquisitely controlled, with every note, beat, and nuance falling just so. Precision is an important part of dance music, of course. But what makes the best dance-punk interesting is the way that quality fights against whatever sloppiness the music inherited from the other side of the family—and the men of Q and Not U are anything but sloppy. Maybe we haven’t come so far, after all: Style is still a lot easier to imitate than substance.
On Wet From Birth, the Faint gets funky more convincingly—probably figuring that once you’ve toured with No Doubt, your punk cred is pretty much doomed anyway, so you might as well go for fun, crowd-pleasing grooves. The Omaha, Neb., quintet’s latest has plenty of these, though its idea of fun has stranger shapes than one might expect.
It’s not a concept album, though there is a loose narrative that picks up here and there: Boy meets girl (“Desperate Guys”), boy dresses like girl (“How Could I Forget”), boy gets an erection (um, “Erection”), the miracle of conception ensues (“Birth”). On 2001’s Danse Macabre, the group seemed determined not to let you forget that it had decided to embrace New Wave, and sometimes the record seemed as if it were about to collapse under the weight of vintage synthesizer lines. Wet From Birth is more synthy, actually, but the Faint has dialed back the self-consciousness, using its dusty bleeps and bloops like guitar wails.
Singer Todd Baechle, meanwhile, takes a page from the Gary Numan playbook, using the slightly inhuman soundscape behind him to frame his tales of anomie, paranoia, and anger. His dispassionate vocals keep emotion at arm’s length even as he sings, “I need you to hold me/I need to feel loved” in “Phone Call.” Basically, it’s Baechle’s lot in life to sound like a sarcastic asshole, though a closer examination of his lyrics reveals he’s really kind of emo: “Southern Belles in London Sing,” for example, opens with a burst of classy sound courtesy of a real-live string quartet. Then Baechle launches into what we think might be a tale of decadence—“Velvet voices, haunting slow/Darkened nooks with bright décor”—but which by the end reveals itself to be a song about missing his girl when he’s touring. Awww.
Still, that doesn’t account for “Erection,” which is simply about getting a woody at an inappropriate moment. Maybe the Faint is hoping to get some of blink-182’s fan runoff. Maybe Baechle has one of those four-hour problems I keep hearing about in the Cialis ads. Or maybe he and his mates just thought it would be funny to rewrite Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” as a dick joke. (“While you wait for appointments/As you walk through the park/Oh/Erection!”) “Paranoiattack” is less funny: It seems the boys had some lyrics left over from the horrible days after 9/11, so they reference duct tape, anthrax, and a few other precious memories. Perhaps it will seem trenchant in a few more years.
Throughout Wet From Birth, the Faint’s arrangement skills are impressive, yielding loud ’n’ loopy grooves outside of whose lines the band delights in coloring. There’s some very nice guitar playing at the end of “Phone Call,” for instance, and the disc-closing “Birth” is a small masterpiece, a pounding travelogue up and down the birth canal, from wet spot to squirming tot. The snare cracks, the keys pound, and Baechle, for a change, barks out the words, as if he really means them—“tunnel of mucus” and all. That’s sloppiness of another variety altogether, but it almost makes you want to get reborn yourself. If only the Faint had managed to squeeze out a few more of these.CP