It suddenly seems like memorializing Michael Jackson, whatever you may have thought of him as a person, is a cool thing for indie dance bands to do. The French group Phoenix just released a new album called Bankrupt! that was worked on using the same recording console that Jackson used to make his iconic sixth LP Thriller, and the group came close to calling their disc Alternative Thriller as a result. The dance-punk band !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk, or pretty much however you want to say it) have also turned to Jackson for inspiration: their latest LP is called, well, THR!!!ER, which, if you believe what you read in online music publications, is the coolest album title to come along in quite some time. (And it may very well be.) So we just need a third semi-successful outfit to, I dunno, re-record Thriller played backwards note-for-note or something, and we’ll have a bona-fide Jackson love-in trend on our hands in music circles. But I digress.
The band !!! has come out with a record that clearly references something quite overly historical in the music business, and it’s easy to write the band off as being pure ego in making such a bold move. However, there’s a newfound tightness in the group when it came to making this album: rather than recapturing the flavour of the band’s live shows, producer Jim Eno of Spoon encouraged the group to find their own way in the studio and essentially make an “album” that had a starting line and a definite finish. And, boy, have !!! succeeded. While the band’s previous effort, Strange Weather, Isn’t It? got somewhat slammed in some quarters for being less hooky and more of a mood piece (as Pitchfork indicated) if not boring (as this Web publication that you’re currently reading groused), THR!!!ER reverses that trend. This is just a wall-to-wall fun dance album and, in fact, it is a hard record to write about, because THR!!!ER isn’t so much a record that leads itself to a great deal of esoterica, though there’s artiness to be had here (“Even When the Water’s Cold” channels Brian Eno-era Talking Heads, and “Get That Rhythm Right” would nestle quite nicely on a Roxy Music record). Instead, this is just one long extended jam with one item on its agenda: to get your bum a-moving as fast and swiftly as possible, stuff that isn’t exactly conducive to being conveyed through the written medium. In fact, about the time I got to “Slyd”, the fifth track on the record, the lights in my apartment had gone low, a mirror ball had descended from my ceiling magically, and I was suddenly wearing one of those suits that John Travolta sported in Saturday Night Fever. Yowsa! So, yeah, this is a record to dance to, to experience, since the grooves are so tight and locked in and the album flows as one master mix. “Califoriyeah”, indeed.
There’s an aura of cool anti-seductiveness and swagger throughout much of THR!!!ER, too. As frontman Nic Offer, well, offers coldly on opening cut, “Even When the Water’s Cold”, “Friends told her she was better off at the bottom of a river / Than in a bed with him / He said, ‘Until you try both, you won’t know what you like better / Why don’t we go for a swim?’.” And “Station (Meet Me At The)” effortlessly baits the Rolling Stones with lyrics such as, “They say you can’t always get what you wanted / But they try to say get what you need.” Much of this is delivered with a sneer, and yet a wink and a tongue firmly planted in cheek, so when you get to the trance-like “Slyd”, which blurts the following, “I don’t really like you / But I like you on the inside,” before repeatedly intoning, like a mantra, “Let’s go somewhere where we can be alone,” you’re in with this band and are ready for a make-out session in someone’s bedroom closet, even if it sounds like the group is giving you the kiss off and is about to dump your sorry ass. Despite that feeling of dejection, this is a broad and populist sounding record, one that is for the crowded spaces in a neon-lit landscape with candy-coloured glow sticks lighting the way. If THR!!!ER does stumble a little bit when it gets to its final two cuts, it’s because this band has been running a virtual marathon in all its ambition and bluster. It’s easy to see why they’d get a little tired and out of breath.
Maybe !!! aren’t far off in naming their record after a landmark album. This is their Thriller, at least in sonic scope. While I doubt that this is going a bajillion units (though surprise me, everyone, by going out and buying a copy as soon as you’re done here), there’s a real vibe here that is more squarely on the dance end of the spectrum, and less so on the punk. While !!! had a reputation as being a bit of a scrappy band, and if you’ve heard their master opus “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)” you’ll kind of know what I mean, that rebelliousness feels a bit dialed down to create a sonic stew that pushes all the right buttons for the club going set. While those days are behind me – I’m 37, so my speed these days is more of a pint in a quiet, dank pub somewhere – I still kinda like, no, love, this record. There’s a section of “Except Death” that begins at the 2:40 mark where there’s just a watery, funky guitar riff that rides against a lock-step beat that immediately grabbed me the first time I heard it, and I’ll be damned if that rear end didn’t start moving automatically in my listening chair on its own volition. If !!! had made an entire album centred around that riff, I think I would have run out of beads on my critical abacus for calculating the scores for the ratings, such as the one you’ll see below. So maybe there’s a bit of bravado in the choice of album name, but !!! earned the right this time out. Goofy and smart in all the right ways, !!! has crafted a record that just puts a big, gaping smile on one’s face and feet a’ shufflin’. If THR!!!ER is in any way part of the legacy of Michael Jackson, I’m pretty sure the King of Pop would have been quite satisfied that his album title got appropriated by another band. It may not have a “Beat It”, but if this disc doesn’t make you wanna move to the beat, you’ve simply just got no soul, brother. Get down and boogie!
- “Slyd” Soundcloud