Over the past five years, Q and Not U have taken the trademark sound of their D.C. label Dischord, which for years has specialized in aggressive, workmanlike post punk (with the legendary Fugazi leading the way), and dared to throw in different elements, setting them apart from the rest of the label’s roster, all the while solidifying their reputation as one of the more potent punk bands around today. With their 2000 debut No Kill Beep Beep and 2002’s Different Damage, the band has steadily improved in the songwriting department, serving up tight, spazzy, fun punk rock, their records ably produced by Mr. Dischord himself, Ian MacKaye. As solid as those albums were, the band still needed to make another stylistic leap, if only to avoid getting stuck in the same old rut that plagues many punk bands. Well, with their third album, Power, they’ve now made that leap, and might I add, in most impressive fashion.
Over a year ago, the band released a single, produced again by MacKaye, containing the tracks “X-polynation” and “Book of Flags”, but when it came time to record the new full-length, the band opted for New York instead of D.C., and cut the album with El Guapo members Rafael Cohen and Pete Cafarella at the helm, and the end result is some more of the usual edgy, caffeinated indie rock Q and Not U excel at, but this time, with a slightly tweaked sound that turns out to be quite a refreshing change in direction.
In a word, synthesizers. Well, synths, and dance beats. Before the recording of Different Damage, original bassist Matt Borlik left the band, and since then, Q and Not U have soldiered on as a three-piece, with both guitarists Chris Richards and Harris Klahr handling bass duties every so often, but other times, eschewing the four-string entirely. On Power, though, many songs contain synth-driven basslines, and not only does it add a cool new twist to the band’s sound, but it also makes the music much more nimble, not to mention a hell of a lot more danceable. In fact, at times, the music on Power sounds like an ultra-violent collision between Fugazi and The Rapture.
It’s all there on the opening track, “Wonderful People”; after a simple intro by drummer John Davis, an absolutely killer, tightly-wound funk guitar lick kicks in, and when Richards comes in with his fabulous falsetto vocals, that synth niggles its way into the song, bouncing along at a Bootsy Collins-like pace, before breaking down into a terrific Moog solo midway through. The call and response of, “Go run go run go run run/People running running running,” is a terrific, deliriously goofy flourish to end a song that deserves to be a single.
Synths also dominate “7 Daughters”, but this time around, the distorted notes add a more sinister quality to the more aggressive tune. The propulsive “LAX” bears a strong similarity to Canadians Hot Hot Heat (Richards’s distinctive wail, primarily), as a real bass is employed, but the keyboards replace the guitar, adding more of a psychedelic rock feel to the proceedings. The latter third of the album returns to the more straightforward arrangements the band has done in the past, and the songs hold their own well, especially the murky “Dine”, the frantic “X-polynation”, the jerky, ‘70s funk-inspired “Book of Flags”, and the excellent “Tag-Tag”.
Still, it’s the more lighthearted elements that grab you the most. The whimsical “Throw Back Your Head” bears a strong resemblance to The Flaming Lips (particularly the album Transmissions From the Satellite Heart), and is punctuated by a delightful little melodica melody during the choruses. “Wet Work” possesses both the optimism and lyrical cleverness of Modest Mouse (“All this beautiful is smuggled like a secret and it doesn’t have to be this way”), not to mention a propulsive breakdown, led by Davis’s percussion work. “Collect the Diamonds” is centered around a simple piano lick, and climaxes with a rave-up sing-along, while “Beautiful Beats” goes for all-out dance punk, with more of that nimble guitar, a pounding disco beat, and more those synthesizers weaving in and out, with more of an ‘80s new wave tone.
Power might not be the best album of the year (more emphasis on the dance element would have been better), but it’s a good, solid album from a band who can always be relied upon to put out good, solid and most importantly, fun music every time out. With the brilliance of “Wonderful People” and “Collect the Diamonds”, the band show they’re on to something great; here’s hoping they continue in that direction. This album is proof that keyboards can be punk, too.