In 2004, we needed something to dance to that didn’t try to tell us that everything was going to be okay. Smack between two Bush terms, some of us sugar-coated our days with twee indie pop, while others drowned out the hot air with dreary post-punk. But even our social spaces needed music that could serve as escapism without taking shelter in denial. The chronically un-Googleable !!! supplied thorny respite in the form of broken dancehall jams, coupling art-punk and nu-disco as adroitly as they welded hedonism and spite. Halfway through the aughts, who didn’t need to hear the line, “You can tell the President to suck my fucking dick”?
Nine years have passed since the release of !!!’s prickly Warp debut, Louden Up Now. Plenty has changed: we’ve swapped out the president, cell phones are ubiquitous, iTunes now lists exclamation points at the bottom of the alphabet instead of the top. While it seemed that !!! was starting to lose steam on the sunny, indistinct Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, their fifth LP packs the band’s signature energy into tighter movements. Here, !!! drops their punk barbs to focus squarely on disco. Moving past politics, the Sacramento six-piece turns their eye inward, entertaining sincere questions of identity, aging, and human relationships. Aided by the production efforts of Spoon’s Jim Eno, !!! presents a record that even asks, in earnest, “Do you believe in love?”
It takes a certain perspective for a band to recognize that it needs perspective, and Eno’s handiwork does help to shake !!! out of the ruts that plagued Strange Weather. Cutting out the steamy, open-ended jams, THR!!!ER employs a deeper and bolder range of sound. Drums tower, while bass dominates the mix. This isn’t quite rock, but Spoon’s clunk starts to harden the rhythm section.
While the highlights of !!!’s early records emerged in prolonged grooves, here the songs keep to more modest lengths. THR!!!ER runs its course in just under 40 minutes; only two tracks break the five-minute mark. But despite its succinctness, the record starts to sag around track six. A slick assembly of discordant dance elements, “Slyd” feels less like a !!! single and more like a DJ-Kicks remix of a Hercules and Love Affair original. Now splintered across three cities, the band yearns for the sun of its home city in “Californiyeah”, but there’s not much beyond cookie-cutter nostalgia inside the song’s murky groove. On ”Careful”, Offer threads awkward lyrics through simmering digital soup: “Be careful to your promises.” It sounds like a story’s moral chewed up through Google Translate.
Despite its wrinkled underbelly, THR!!!ER contains a few fruitful meditations on the inevitable trot towards death. ”Get That Rhythm Right” looks back on the could-have-beens, employing the uniform beat of one of !!!’s time-honored jams without terribly much evolution in tone. ”Fine Fine Fine”, perhaps the band’s most straightforward track to date, surfs a scruffy Britpop beat as it dives into the question of how to lose your youth without losing your mind. The more optimistic ”One Girl / One Boy” darts around easy riffs and loping beats, filling a familiar nu-disco mold with disarmingly lovelorn lyrics.
It’s not surprising that before writing THR!!!ER, frontman Nic Offer undertook a soul-searching journey halfway across the globe. Somewhere in Africa, he presumably gained the necessary perspective on life to branch away from the sweary tantrums of !!!’s early years. THR!!!ER grapples with the problem of how to grow up both as a musician and as a human being—how to recognize the flaws of even the most self-assured young adulthood, and how to move forward from them.
While THR!!!ER certainly marks growth for !!!, it’s hard not to miss the queasy mutations of ”Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)” or the filthy grind of “Must Be the Moon”. Now that nu-disco has evaporated through feel-good acts like Poolside and Body Language, hearing !!! curl back to its seeds feels too obvious at points. But for a record that’s this retrospective in content, the simpler delivery fits. As vital as Louden Up Now sounded nine years ago, subgenres laced with punk rarely age gracefully.
Like both Myth Takes and Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, THR!!!ER feels frontloaded. It can’t help but spill its best parts first in the bouncy chorus of “Even When The Water’s Cold” and the funky scrapes of “Fine Fine Fine”. If Offer and company had sustained these highlights, THR!!!ER might have been heralded as a welcome comeback, a humbler evolution of !!!’s nebulous sound. As it is, the record treads too close to James Murphy’s six-year-old footprints. Existential nu-disco hasn’t been done to death, but it has been done better than this.
Essential Tracks: ”Even When The Water’s Cold”, and “Fine Fine Fine”