“Hello? Is this thing on?” I’m talking to my computer, flipping it around, opening the case, examining every wire and port, trying to figure out what’s going on. My expression drifts from confusion to consternation and back again. It’s not working properly, I tell myself. I can see the screen is on. My mouse is moving and it says the highlighted tracks are being cycled through, sure. But I’m listening to !!!’s fourth full-length, Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, and the songs don’t sound like they’re changing. One of the following applies. You decide which:
a) My eyesight isn’t what it used to be and the same song is, in fact, on repeat.
b) I was given a watermarked copy of Strange Weather, Isn’t It? with “AM/FM” nine times in a row on a lark by Warp itself.
c) I’m lying to you for a cheap gag as a way of highlighting what the most flawed part of Strange Weather, Isn’t It? is.
Namely: It might as well be “AM/FM” nine times in a row (or 11, if you want to count bonus tracks “Made of Money” and “Blue”). It may seem stupid to criticize a dance-punk band for continuing to do what they’ve always done best, and !!! was always a focused entity, much more narrowly defined than companion group Out Hud. These songs, however, feel lackadaisical. The band seems bored with itself, and if !!! isn’t having fun, chances are good that you aren’t going to, either.
From their 2000 self-titled debut through the sort-of-legendary “Me and Giuliani Down By the Schoolyard (A True Story)” single and ‘04’s Louden Up Now, the band thrived on hedonistic freewheeling funk filtered through gritty post-punk, disco cowbells, and polished hi-hats on the 16th. Nic Offer’s lyrics were rarely something to write home about, but you took every dated, token Bush bash with his perfectly sleazy delivery and some incredible music to back it up. It was easy to ignore what he was saying when his voice felt like another instrument and the compulsion to dance was so irresistibly strong. Myth Takes was a much sleeker affair, but even when it felt serious and at times paranoid, the general vibe was that the band was still winking at you. They were still dancing, so you did, too. You could sink your teeth into it if you wanted, but that was your prerogative.
Strange Weather, Isn’t It? still feels serious, but exhaustively so. The coked-up party vibes from five years ago are back, but no one’s in the mood to pass the glass tray and roll up a $20. The band plays every song — literally, every single song — with what comes out as complete disinterest. The beats are indistinguishable from one another, but what’s worse is that they are unrelenting: Almost every second of this album is covered by an oppressive, half-assed four-to-the-floor bump that will get you dancing whether you like it or not. For anyone looking to capture the mood of Less Than Zero in song, this is your album.
What’s too bad is that Offer’s lyrics have improved and the vocal lines are more memorable than they’ve been in the past. This is his best showing on any album front-to-back, some truly enjoyable baby steps forward. “AM/FM” is a rightful first single, but even “Jamie, My Intentions Are Bass” and “Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss” are outstanding in the melody department (for the backing vocals of Shannon Funchess, mainly, but enjoyable all the same). But where once you were glad his monotone was disguised by the music, now you kind of wish it was brought forward more to distract from the stifling sameness of the songs.
They’ve made it easy for me by including a little sub-three-minute jig in the tracklisting called “Hollow.” As a representation of the album, this should have been the first single: Percussion dominates, you get a few guitar strikes, some knob-twiddling, the backing female vocals, Offer’s whisper. They’re going through the motions, you can’t get into it, and then it’s over, just like that. Strange Weather, Isn’t It? is a party where everyone looks like they’re having fun. It encourages aesthetics over examination (just dance, man). I don’t need to tell you these songs are going to work well in !!!’s live sets or in the background at your next house party; this is a great live band and that will likely always be the case. But out of a social context, this is music to be pitied.