I don’t dance.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I should say I don’t dance in public. At home, with the curtains drawn and the music blasting, is another matter entirely. But as far as anyone else knows, I don’t dance, so I’m sticking with that. There’s a self-consciousness at work there that I would love to get over – I have friends who dance in public all the time, and it looks like fun. But based on the few times I’ve rhythmically lurched about in the company of others, I can safely say no one wants to see that.
I react to music bodily, though, and there’s no getting around it. Put on a good beat, and despite my resistance, I am moving to it. I love music that makes me want to dance. The best is music that makes me flit around the room uncontrollably, playing air drums and air guitar and lip-syncing wildly. (Those who know me well are nodding right now.) While I didn’t hear any of that this week, most of the records I have on tap were designed with dancing in mind, and I won’t lie, I did feel the urge to move once or twice.
Of course, if you don’t dance a little while listening to a !!! album, the band has thoroughly failed. Nic Offer’s outfit has been at the dance-pop thing for almost 20 years, and if they don’t have it down by now, something’s wrong. That’s not to say they haven’t been evolving – they started out as a loud, jammy guitar band, extending some of their songs out to 10 minutes or more of slamming six-string disco grooves. Six albums in, they’ve just about entirely eradicated all of the basement punk from their sound.
On their sixth, As If, Offer and company give us their most straightforward dance record yet. It’s their airiest and most electronic, and the furthest they have stepped away from their roots. In fact, if you’re a longtime fan of this band, the first four tracks may give you the impression that you’ve put in the wrong disc. Three of those songs are sparse, synthetic dance tracks, culminating with the positively killer six-minute “Freedom! ’15,” with its super-funky basslines and James Brown-esque chorus. (“How’s that working for you, baby?”) Sandwiched in the middle is “Every Little Bit Counts,” a sunny lite-funk pop song that is unlike anything this band has done, and not necessarily in a good way.
The record goes on like this, with many of its admittedly kickass grooves supporting half-formed songs – the whole thing is a beat in search of anything to hang it on, as evidenced by the not-quite-finished “All the Way.” There’s a slinky synth part, some slippery electric piano, a four-on-the-floor beat and bass line, and… well, not much else for four minutes. If what you want is a deep groove, you got it. And if that does it for you, so will much of As If. It’s a patchy record – for every “All the Way” there’s a terrific little tune like “’Til the Money Runs Out” – but it never fails to bring the beat.
That patchiness remains, though, all the way through to the end, an eight-minute mess called “I Feel So Free (Citation Needed).” It’s the same organ motif, the same click-clack beat, with a heavily modulated Offer rambling over it for what feels like a year. I expect this was fun to make, and if you’re listening to a band that uses three exclamation points for its name (pronounced “chk chk chk”) for anything other than fun, you’re probably up the wrong tree. But the band’s last album, Thr!!!er, was solid and well-written, and As If is a definite step down. It’ll make you move, but it won’t make you want to listen again.
For repeat value, I’d recommend the second album by English duo Disclosure. (And, hell, the first one too.)
Howard and Guy Lawrence aren’t hoping to be the vanguard of modern dance music. They have a healthy respect for traditional, old-school club pop, and that respect is woven through every track of their excellent sophomore release, Caracal. It follows essentially the same pattern as Settle, their debut – simple, danceable songs sung by a number of guest stars, produced with a nostalgic edge. This time the brothers bring in The Weeknd, Lorde and Miguel, and bring back Sam Smith, who has rocketed to stardom since his work on Settle.
And like the best dance-pop records, it’s consistent despite the variety of lead vocalists. The identity belongs to the Lawrence brothers, no matter who is behind the mic. The lyrics are secondary things, just there to get those voices on the track. The Weeknd opens things with “Nocturnal,” a thick, dark song that sets a more obsidian mood for this record. The slightly darker atmosphere is the main difference between this record and the last one, but Caracal ends up being just as much fun. Lorde’s track, “Magnets,” is a mid-album highlight, as is “Jaded,” one of two songs sung by Howard Lawrence. There aren’t any weak spots on Caracal, though, so in a way, all the songs are highlights.
Closer “Masterpiece” is the only song here not fit for dancing. It’s a slow number, with Jordan Rakei’s haunting vocals floating above a wispy backing track, and it ends things on a note both somber and uplifting. It also drives home the fact that Caracal is an album, not just a collection of danceable singles. I’ve been impressed with this duo, and I’m pleased to see them getting more mainstream attention. Even if you don’t dance, Disclosure’s work is interesting and fun.
If dancing were on your mind, it would, admittedly, be harder to do that while listening to Battles. But I do think the New York outfit believes what they do is dance music. It just sounds like it’s from another planet.
The third Battles album, La Di Da Di, is their second as a trio following the departure of vocalist/guitarist Tyondi Braxton, and it’s their first to truly overcome his absence and deliver something excellent. It’s entirely instrumental, sounds largely performed live, and is a constantly unfolding chunk of jammy, proggy goodness. Songs like the awesome “FF Bada” are built on a foundation of kinetic drums and shifting bass, with guitars and keys locking in like puzzle pieces. it’s math-y, but always fun.
La Di Da Di sounds like a jam session that was very carefully thought out beforehand. The whole thing sounds spontaneous, in the best way, but with clear maps and blueprints. You might think that would get tiring over 50 minutes, but Battles keep things interesting all the way through. The closer, “Luu Le,” is one of the most interesting, flitting hither and yon on stuttering keyboards, martial drums and sleigh bells. As a trio, Battles will probably never pull off what they did as a quartet, but La Di Da Di finds them coming very close, and establishing a new template for this era of the band. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s math rock that makes you dance, and if that sounds impossible, you should hear it. I dare you not to move.
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I’m calling this one early, since I’ve had a lot going on and I’m feeling under the weather. Next week, hopefully I will be back to my usual standard. I’ll be reviewing new things from Joanna Newsom, Vanessa Carlton and the Innocence Mission. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.