In a recent New York Times op-ed piece on roots-rock act Marah, High Fidelity and About a Boy author Nick Hornby lamented, among other things, contemporary pop’s lack of “recognizable influences.” In other words, Hornby wishes that new music didn’t sound so damn new. It’s a position guaranteed to put any 47-year-old on the outs with the rest of the rock cognoscenti, who’ve been quick to smack Hornby with another C-word. “[I]f you’re looking for someone who can’t confront or discern the present moment, there is no greater spokesbaldy,” New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in his blog, suggesting that Hornby is “campaigning for as conservative a conception of rock as one could imagine.”
But conservatism in word and conservatism in deed are apparently different things. Take New York/California punk-funk septet !!!—pronounced “chk chk chk” or “pow pow pow” or “uh uh uh” or, as the press kit has it, “any three repetitive sounds”—which has earned plenty of praise from forward-thinking critics for a distinctly backward-looking sound. Despite the timely—and politically liberal—lyrics of their second and latest full-length, the relentlessly upbeat Louden Up Now, the members of !!! probably wouldn’t disagree with Hornby’s basic sentiment.
The first time I saw !!!, in a small, stink-filled George Washington University classroom, guitarists Mario Andreoni and Tyler Pope were in thrall to the then-recent Fela Kuti reissues, laying down impressive facsimiles of latticelike Africa 70 lines over drummer John Pugh’s generous groove. And Louden Up krautrock nod “Dear Can” features some of that same nice, quasi-Nigerian six-stringing. But !!! isn’t a single-minded act by any means: Compared with their Fela-obsessed Brooklyn neighbors in Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, the !!! guys are full-on pop polymaths.
Not as poly- as some, however. Like other New New Yorkers—Yeah Yeah Yeahs, say, or the Rapture, or pre-Wicca Liars—the ex-hardcore kids in !!! crib their aboutness from late-’70s and early-’80s punks who got tired of moshing and started shaking some ass—or at least making dance-rock. The nine-minute “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story),” for instance, revisits New Order’s guitar-chime-plus-disco-beats
exuberance, with vocalist Nic
Offer even throwing in a Bernard Sumner–like “do do dut de doo-ooh-ah” amid his slags on Rudy the Square. Elsewhere, the album is essentially a patchwork: Public Image Ltd.’s huge bass, Gang of Four’s scratchy guitars, A Certain Ratio’s club-culture rhythms.
Despite its deference to Blighty, !!! reminds me of No New York’s the Contortions more than any other act. And that has less to do with sound than with structure: The Contortions’ early work owes its frisson to the juxtaposition of tight jazz-funk rhythms and leader James Chance’s agit-skronk singing and sax. Offer is nowhere near as noisy and aggressive as Chance, and the folks backing him are far more professional than the Contortions. (Actually, they’re far more pro than any of their NYC peers.) But !!! nonetheless traffics in similar dissonance. Party tale “Hello? Is This Thing On?,” for example, finds the band spinning some sleazy-elegant disco while Offer charts a progression from wallflower shyness to drug-fueled meltdown, ending with a strident temper tantrum: “Everybody’s acting like I’m…/Everybody’s acting like I’m fuckin’ crazy or something…/ Like…everybody’s just…juh…juh…”
High historical fidelity aside, this is undoubtedly where Hornby would disembark—that is, if he could stomach any of Louden Up’s four previous tracks. Hornby doubts that “weird” music—that is, anything outside the “rock canon uninflected”—will ever “mak[e] us glad we’re alive.” And no, !!! does not sound like the Beatles, the O’Jays, the Replacements, or any of the other bands that supposedly make us feel good. And yes, !!! does, at times, sound like Throbbing Gristle—a proto-industrial band that, according to Hornby, does not. The reality, of course, is this: Louden Up is going to make many kids very happy to be on the planet, no matter how much it sounds like the folks who brought us “Five Knuckle Shuffle.”
These are not songs that !!! or anyone else could pull off around a campfire—and the band knows it: “I try my very best 2 B just how I am,” Offer sings on “Shit Sheisse Merde Pt. 1,” “but everyone wants me 2 B like Zimmerman.” That’s about as penetrating as Louden Up gets lyrically, but Offer actually has more in common with the openly topical coffeehouse Dylan than he might imagine. Sometimes he’s clever: “I got this friend named Neil, swears Nixon had soul/But what I’d like to know is can Giuli do the stroll.” Sometimes he’s not: “What did George Bush say when he met Tony Blair?/…He said U act like U care and I act like I care and we both stay rich.” And sometimes he’s just plain potty-mouthed: “U can tell the president 2 suck my fucking dick/Does that sound intelligent?”
Even when Offer comes up with a genuine hook—say, the “Like I give a shit about that fuck” chorus on “Pardon My Freedom”—he still comes across as less than essential. Little of what he does on Louden Up is likely to get arms unfolded and feet a-movin’: !!!’s grooves need Offer like a river needs a raft. Appropriately, the band keeps him low in the mix throughout. Or treats him like a sample (“Dear Can”). Or eighty-sixes him entirely (“King’s Weed” and the instrumental version of “Shit Sheisse Merde Pt. 1”).
Still, there’s something about the tight, effortless muscularity of !!!’s rhythm and horn sections that trumps almost any weak lyric or swallowed vocal line. Louden Up Now is no great leap forward—it’s too tethered to the past for that, too full of recognizable influences. But the band’s aesthetic provenance matters less than the fact that it sounds as if it owns whatever it chooses to play. Under the swirling lights, that’s all that’s gonna count. CP
!!! performs at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, June 20, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.