I admit to frequent bouts of crippling ambivalence on the subject of !!!, ambivalence that I still feel very strongly as I sit down to write this review. On paper !!! should be one of the most exciting bands on the planet right now, combining a laundry list of all the best influences (the Talking Heads and James Brown, acid house and Afrobeat) with the kind of irrepressibly charismatic and physical presence that comes across even through the genteel medium of digitally recorded sound. At a time when the music press was shifting around for new trends that registered above the level of fashionable affectation, they lit on the inevitable convergence of dance music with punk methodology—after the effete Europeans and E-tards of the late ‘90s rendered dance music persona non grata in the collective unconsciousness, something more was needed to restore the four-on-the-four to good graces. So, in the most unimaginative turn of events possible, we saw the advent of dance punk: the Rapture, !!!, LCD Soundsystem and the DFA production team that in turn spawned James Murphy.
So here, finally, was a dance music to which the hipsters could dance without feeling self-conscious. And some of it was even pretty good. But for someone, like myself, who followed dance music throughout the years without any loss of ardent affection, who saw the genre fall to precipitous domestic lows in terms of both commercial viability and critical success, who even remembers the bright spots of much-maligned fads such as UK garage and electroclash with unironic fondness… seeing the hipsters “rediscover” something that never really went away has been a fairly disgusting experience. I say this at the risk of overstating my case, but it’s slightly disconcerting to see these young turks so excited about reinventing the wheel; the wheel’s been around for a long time, I’ve been enjoying riding around on the wheel, I’ve got a pair of wheels in the garage. The wheel never went away. I like James Murphy for just that reason: he seems to be as bemused by the cyclicality of tastes as anyone else. One minute the kids like dancing, the next they like to look at their shoes and collect pins to put on their jacket, the next they’re dancing again. It’s not a new story, but after a while it all becomes so very exhausting.
So, are !!! as great a band as they undoubtedly wish they were, or are they the unexpected recipients of lowered expectations, a dance group good enough to get the attention of indie kids but really not that great in the context of the larger dance scene? An interesting question, and repeated listenings of Myth Takes have not made for easy answers. One fact that cannot be denied is that these guys are very good at what they do: they definitely have the chops to match their ambition. They’ve always been good, but Myth Takes is the product of unalloyed virtuosity. Sometimes, because of the jammy nature of their compositions, they get unfairly derided as a hipster-friendly jam band, but while they may bristle at the comparison, they do share one important trait with the patchouli-scented likes of Phish and Ratdog: they know how to play like a house on fire. Only, instead of playing warmed-over Grateful Dead retreads, they play funky dance music. In effect, the group comes across like an art-school incarnation of the JBs, the Talking Heads backing Fela Kuti. They seem to be a fairly democratic organism but they’ve got the kind of tightness that is traditionally associated with demanding bandleaders and imperious composers. Considering that their songs often meander past the eight or nine minute mark, it is remarkable just how precise these extremely jam-friendly tunes can sound.
The problem with Myth Takes is that the album seems to take great pleasure in burying the band’s best virtues. In many walks of life brevity is a virtue, but not so much in dance music, wherein there are few things more frustrating than a great groove truncated into a mere three or four minutes. Somewhere along the line !!! got it into their heads that they should write real songs with real choruses and bridges—not necessarily an ignoble goal, but definitely at odds with the band’s presumed raison d’etre. A track like “All My Heroes Are Weirdos” clocks in at just over three minutes, despite the fact that the listener suspects it could easily have run for twice that, if not longer. This brings to mind the most clear touchstone for Myth Takes, the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings & Food. Both albums seem to take an almost impish glee in truncating heady grooves into compact bursts of anxious adrenaline. The difference is that at that time the Talking Heads were just beginning to unlock the musical possibilities of groove and rhythm which punk had largely to that point eschewed, and time would see their subsequent albums grow to encompass this rapidly sprawling understanding. !!!, on the other hand, seem to be moving backwards, becoming more disciplined and concise in places at the expense of their charismatic appeal.
This is all the more frustrating, as the album alternates damningly brief song fragments with more fully-formed tracks that point the way to an appreciably more satisfying paradigm for the group. “Must Be the Moon”, an early standout and sure-fire single, clocks in at a respectable six minutes, but still feels slightly rushed at that. (It’s also worth mentioning, for the sake of the Talking Heads’ comparison, that this track seems to have been built atop the hook from the Heads’ “Not in Love”—there are certainly worse songs from which to filch, all things considered.) The album’s centerpiece is the rocker “Bend Over Beethoven”, a rave-up that will undoubtedly bring obvious comparisons to the group’s break-through single “Me and Giuliani Down By the Schoolyard”. Tracks like “Break in Case of Anything” and the title track, while undoubtedly too short, still present excellent grooves and interesting rhythmic permutations which, one can’t help but thinking, would be much more interesting live.
But this pinpoints perhaps the major cause of my discomfort with the album, which is Nic Offer’s vocals. To put it plainly, he is the weak link that drags down the album’s more song-focused efforts. “Sweet Life” is the closest thing on here to a standard rock track, with a fairly conventional structure that struggles against the band’s traditionally engrossing textures. Offer simply doesn’t have the kind of vocal presence to make the listener think his voice doesn’t detract. In the past, as on the aforementioned “Me and Giuliani”, the vocals worked because they were presented as simply another element in the band’s sound, not quite up front and slightly obscured. But front and center, they are weak and unflattering. This was my problem with the group’s 2005 cover of Stephen Merrit’s “Take Ecstasy With Me”, a good song that backfired for the group, seemingly inhibiting rather than enabling the band’s strengths. It’s not so bad on a track like “Yadnus”, built as it is on a foundation of wonky late ‘60s garage rock: Offer’s voice is present but not grating. When he tries to play like a lead singer, however, he simply comes off as annoying, a tyro out of place.
So even after listening to the album for the better part of a weekend, I’m still no closer to making up my mind about it. On the one hand, it is definitely growing on me: the grooves are unimpeachably groovy, the funk is hot, and at times the comparisons to vintage James Brown and Fela Kuti don’t seem so far-fetched. But then there are moments when they seem to lose sight of what it is exactly that makes them so interesting to begin with, writing songs that seem stuck halfway between dance and conventional indie rock. Perhaps if you had slept on the last half-decade of dance music, you might not notice anything missing, but coming from the point of view of someone firmly entrenched in the world of dance music, there can’t help but be something slightly disappointing about these kinds of misplaced ambitions. It’s similar to the sensation I get every couple years when the Chemical Brothers release a new album, featuring great, genre-defining dance tracks interspersed with not-quite-convincing attempts at pop songwriting. There’s branching out, and then there’s willfully dismissing your own obvious strengths. It’s the same reason I thought LCD Soundsystem’s debut album was nowhere near as good as the singles that preceded it. Oddly enough, the Rapture seem to have figured out how to balance their rock and dance tendencies with unusual aplomb: Pieces of the People We Love was a lot better than it had any right to be. But Myth Takes is nowhere near as good as that album, and while it is by no means a bad disc, it is still not quite as good as one suspects it could have been.
// Notes from the Road
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