A fair amount has changed in !!!‘s world since 2007′s Myth Takes saw the veteran dance-punk band hit what many felt was a career peak. Longtime second vocalist John Pugh departed to focus on Free Blood, friend and frequent collaborator Jerry Fuchs passed away suddenly, and, stylistically, the Cali-via-NYC act began to itch for a darker sound. Beginning the creative process for the band’s fourth album, Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, in Berlin, the band worked to mold an already entrancing neu-disco style into something even more propulsive, while retaining their penchant for hooks. The new album certainly sounds like a band confident enough to tweak its components without losing its edge – they’ve been blistering stages the world over since 1996 – but the end result is, unfortunately, less thrilling or groundbreaking than expected.
!!! doesn’t make bad records, so any attempt to label Strange Weather, Isn’t It? as a massive disappointment would be folly. It simply feels more uninspired than their previous work, a collection of songs that wants so badly to be great but too often settles for being just OK. Instead of evolving their ability to write hooks, the band stayed put, crafting a record full of trademark grooves (at this point, they probably write them in their sleep) while thwarting any sense of surprise. Where the instantly memorable vocal deliveries of “All My Heroes Are Weirdos” and “Me and Guiliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)” were gritty and lyrical, most of Nic Offer’s work here feels almost listless, as if he confused their trip to minimalist Berlin as an excuse to sound detached. To be sure, while the heart-on-his-sleeve anger of “Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss” is a welcome dose of earnestness, the song ends up coming across as more petty than poetic, a strange combination of Offer defending Christians while publicly airing his dirty laundry.
Vocals aside, most of my disappointment resides in the fact that the final track, “The Hammer”, is one of the best songs !!! has ever written, leaving me wishing there were eight other songs with its energy and sense of exploration. While the whole record sounds great, featuring a production sheen on par with anything by disco greats Chic, G.Q., or Love Committee, “The Hammer” marks ground zero in terms of the band moving their aesthetic forward. Building on their signature rhythmic swagger, a thick synth melody ignites the previously withdrawn mood as Offer chants, “Don’t stop, stop, stop, stop” with a clarifying boldness, the rest of the band working the riff into a cacophonous dance-punk frenzy. Points of “Steady as the Sidewalk Cracks”, “Hollow”, and “The Most Certain Sure” also indicate !!! was onto something invigorating in Berlin, but “The Hammer” ultimately represents the only indispensable track on Strange Weather.
The sheer concept of expectations is a fickle one in any medium, and it’s one that’s historically irritated great artists more than anything else. Almost 15 years into his !!! career, I’d imagine Nic Offer honestly could not care less what we’d hoped would come after such an amazing Myth Takes record, and that’s part of why we’re endeared to him; he seems engaged, but unaffected, just making music and having a grand time turning rooms into a hot mess with his friends. But, unlike most popular indie acts of the last decade, !!! is a product of its own success – no one plucked this band from obscurity – so, it’s by their own high standards that Strange Weather, Isn’t It? must be weighed. If you’re already a !!! diehard, there are plenty of reasons to buy this record, among which are how you can make sense of the band’s highs and (relative) lows for your friends when you’re telling them how great they are. If you’ve never heard of them, go back and get Louden Up Now and Myth Takes, two records that define experimental punk and that will hopefully inspire something similar in Strange Weather…‘s wake.