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Thanks in large part to the Dischord imprint, D.C. has one of the most cerebral rock scenes in the country. I mean that as a compliment, of course. After all, the major-domos in Fugazi have only gotten more sonically adventurous with age, checking in to wide acclaim last year with the high-IQ screed The Argument. This past spring, labelmate El Guapo offered up an intricate science kit of an album called Super/System. And the one and only LP by recently deceased Dischord act Faraquet, The View From This Tower, garnered favorable comparisons to—gulp—King Crimson, one of the most theoretically inclined rock bands ever.
The smart-boy buzz these District denizens have generated oughta be enough to make higher-profile New York exports such as the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs look like the vapid party boys (and girl) they so obviously are. Unfortunately, as everybody knows, the geeks never get the headlines. So the rest of the world has yet to learn what Washington scene-watchers have known for quite a while: If NYC is rock ‘n’ roll high school, D.C. is where you do your graduate work.
Maybe, however, a spelling bee would do the trick. “Soft Pyramids,” the lead track on Q and Not U’s new long-player, Different Damage, opens with vocalist-guitarist Chris Richards spelling out the song’s title in soft, chanted tones. While the band kicks up a percussive ruckus, rhetorical and vaguely political questions rise to the surface: “How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?/How can we ask for the best?/We can’t imagine that.” Meanwhile, someone in the band laces a haunting little melodica riff through the track, creating a delicate—and decidedly Gang of Four-ish—counterpoint to the rest of the song’s heady murk.
The D.C.-based trio, in other words, is yet another bunch of Dischord-ant scientist rockers. And though the group’s occasionally poppy latest ain’t exactly difficult listening, it is one outre album. The dozen tracks it comprises run the gamut from spastic freakout to complicated math rock, often in the same damn song. A typical Q tune finds drummer John Davis flailing away frenetically (but always on the one) while bandmates Richards and Harris Klahr, who also contributes vocals and guitar, bob and weave their instruments through his snare-happy din. Hooks are sometimes optional, it’s true, but the band’s allegiance to experimentation usually makes up in sonic ambition what might be lacking in catchy parts.
In addition to the Gang, obvious antecedents here would include later punk-rawk scholars such as Fugazi (natch), the Minutemen, and the mighty Mission of Burma. The Q men, however, have also apparently spent some quality time studying the vocal stylings of one Perry Farrell. Farrell’s not exactly a poster boy for the gifted program, of course, so it’s a bit ironic that Q and Not U’s occasional appropriation of his rangy, arena-ready attack is the band’s not-so-secret weapon. At the very least, it’s certainly a quality that sets the group apart from its peers. El Guapo can be emotionless and uninviting, for instance, while some might say that Fugazi is, well, you know, reflexively severe—certainly pure, maybe even puritanical.
Q and Not U, on the other hand, sounds like the Dischord act most likely to use fog machines at a stadium show. Take “So Many Animal Calls,” wherein ticking percussion gives way to a careening stompfest complete with an overdriven bass line and sharp bursts of rhythmic noise that arrive right on punk-pop cue. “Air Conditions” is also arranged for maximum dramatic bliss, moving gracefully from Bic-flicker to fist-pumper in just under four minutes. Too bad the lyrics aim so low, trafficking mostly in boring old hipsterized ennui: “Carved in trees, written in leaves, signed in piss/Trust me/We’ve seen it” goes one world-weary verse. And if it weren’t for Davis’ high-in-the-mix rhythmic spazz attack—a Q and Not U signature—the relatively delicate “Snow Patterns” might be accurately described as Beatles-like. As is, Porno for Pyros-esque will
have to do.
Elsewhere, “No Damage Nocturne” finds the band doing a swell job of folding jangling guitars and hand-clapped percussion into its otherwise angular mix. And though the set-closing “Recreation Myth” begins with a slurred and oblique imperative (“Hands up give in to modernism,” with “modernism” sounding like “moder-nay-um”) and some extradissonant guitar skronk, the group has the good sense to set the thing to a syncopated disco beat.
“Black Plastic Bag,” however, is the disc’s best bet. A fairly traditional punker, it’s also the track that owes the most to Fugazi. But though Ian MacKaye is the knob-twiddler of record on Different Damage, the members of Q and Not U seem more like Guy guys to me. No doubt, “Plastic Bag” is bracing and caustic, a shrieking, in-your-face
smear of noise that packs a gratuitous lyrical punch. (Sample verse: “Who’s paying your mortgage?…/Daddy’s dying/Daddy’s dying/Daddy’s dying/Daddy/Throw yourself on the body/Sharp teeth/
Sharp teeth/Take out your sharp teeth.” Oh boy.) But when the almost lovely backing vocals chime in, you know you’re in the presence of a potentially great sound-over-sense band—which, to his undying credit, is precisely the direction Picciotto has always nudged Fugazi in.
Still, MacKaye’s influence is obvious on Different Damage. Along with Inner Ear Studios’ Don Zientara, he’s produced all of Q and Not U’s official releases, and though he’s no Radio Shack-loving “recordist” a la Steve Albini, he does have a way of spoiling some of the fun. The disc’s sound is frequently two-dimensional, sometimes even demo-ish. And MacKaye should certainly tell Davis to lay off the high hat: The man’s gonna give someone a seizure. Also, sad but true, Q and Not U has a puritanical streak all its own. Nowadays, we could definitely use an experimental rock band with some genuine political insight—who’s gonna be the Minutemen to W.’s Reagan?—but Q’s vague sloganeering occasionally makes the group sound like a gaggle of half-baked anti-globalization protesters.
Still, Different Damage does include a fair number of keepers, and it’s certainly a fine example of what’s going on with the District’s smarty-pants rock scene. Next time out, though, Q and Not U should consider shooting for a genuinely irresistible pop hook or two. Jeez, even an airhead like Julian Casablancas can pull that off. How hard can it possibly be? CP
Q and Not U performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.