It’s understandable if you haven’t listened to !!! since 2005. Understandable, but not forgivable. Although there is a tendency to lump them in with NYC dance punk contemporaries from that time (The Rapture, Radio 4), to remember !!! solely within that context would be horribly unfair to a band that has crafted some of the most dynamic live-band dance music of recent memory. Yes, they were there at the advent of a million hipster dance parties, but, having persevered all this time, the band represents much more than the soundtrack to those cliché, coke-nosed, PBR-fueled Billyburg nights.
2007’s Myth Takes was a high-water mark for the group. Discarding their tendency to wander, for which Louden Up Now was criticized, it was a fiercely focused effort, breathlessly incorporating, marrying, and transcending their post-punk and electronic dance music influences. I caught them during the supporting tour for the album, playing a 300-person capacity club in Charleston, SC; the band was an absolute juggernaut, closing a frenzied hour-long performance with their raucous cover of Nate Dogg’s “Get Up,” ending the set at the perfect moment of exhaustion and satisfaction. At the time, I felt I was seeing a band at the peak of its powers.
So after a few years and a number of major lineup changes, it’s not surprising that I’d come to their new album, Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, with some reservations. With the departure of Justin Vandervolgen to LCD Soundsystem and the tragic passing of drummer Jerry Fuchs, how would the band cope with the loss of such an all-star rhythm section? What kind of dimensions would new vocalist Shannon Funchess add after co-front man John Pugh left the band? Could Nic Offer maintain his inhuman levels of sass and swagger even after all these years?
Strange Weather, Isn’t It? is undoubtedly the band’s most streamlined effort to date. Operating from a Brian Eno-ism that “one idea obscures another,” the band made a decision to emphasize what they feel really works in their robust sound. “AM/FM” is the lead single and is vintage !!!, with slinky bass, hovering synth syncopations, and trademark guitar delay. And then, of course, there is Offer, in full-on smart-assed, close-talker mode. Funchess pitches in on the chorus, her vocals adding a hint of Out Hud. Funchess (also of Light Asylum) is a welcome addition, especially when she takes the lead on tracks like “Wannagain Wannagain.”
“Jamie, My Intentions Are Bass” reflects another familiar aspect of !!!, that of irreverent, snickering wordplay. As you might expect, it’s seriously funky, with well-placed breakdowns and builds. Thankfully, saxophone has again been given a place in the band’s sound. On “Steady as the Sidewalk Cracks,” the instrument raises up like some excavated ghost of Huey Lewis, re-appropriated in a manner that doesn’t suck, echoing out into the city night. It’s worth nothing that Strange Weather was partially recorded under the influence of Berlin nightclubs, but !!! have been always been operating to optimize your nocturnal escapades.
Despite all the departures and tragedy that !!! have endured recently, Strange Weather, Isn’t It? is familiar and cohesive from front to back. “Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss” seems to reflect some thinly-veiled beef, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks. All the adversity seems to have made !!! an even stronger unit. The only real negative criticism is that the band has made too much of an effort to cut the fat from their sound; missing is some of the expansiveness that made “Me And Guiliani Down By The School Yard (A True Story)” such a classic. Despite that, over the course of 10 years and 4 albums, !!! is still burning as brightly as ever, whether you’re paying attention or not.