Photo by Kevin Westenberg
I am extremely Caucasian. My background would be a liability in discussing the new disco-punks except for the fact that they’re extremely Caucasian, too. And though they may not have listened to Poison and Phil Collins in their youth, they certainly absorbed Van Halen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers before getting hipped to alternative rock, hardcore punk, then funky post-punk. Deep inside, they’re rockers; the dance-club groove isn’t second nature.
The bands at issue are !!!, OutHud and the Rapture, solid groups all with roots in California, each of which coasted by for
a very long time on buzz generated by scanty material. Though each band formed in the late ’90s, up till recently none had more than 7-inches, 12-inches or CD-EPs to their name. That didn’t stop trendspotters from piling on accolades, however. The Rapture in particular have received the type of fawning European critical reception that led directly to stateside success for the Strokes and the White Stripes.
Now it’s judgment time. In the last few months, the three bands have released new records, with the Rapture’s debut, Echoes, leading the charge. Though advance CD-Rs have been circulating for well over a year, Echoes was released only last week on Strummer, a new imprint run by Gary Gersh, the seer/A&R man credited with discovering Nirvana. Gersh has been going around telling people that the Rapture can do for disco-punk what Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did for grunge; that the Rapture will not chase after commercial-radio play, but commercial radio will chase after the Rapture.
The stories of Nirvana and the Rapture make for an appealing analogy. Previous to their generation-defining hit, Nirvana seemed hopelessly obscure. In an era of hair metal and MTV packaged pop, they operated in a pre-grunge genre affectionately labeled “pigfuck.” They dressed like lumberjacks, thought like punk rockers and played arty metal. Who knew this magic combination would unite two undergrounds — burnouts and fey indie rockers — and establish a movement that would earn both sales and critical acclaim? Who knew that their debut, Nevermind, would go on to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the pop charts?
The disco-punk bands are banking on the fact that the teen-pop and nu-metal revolutions have left a similar aquifer of
underground sentiment, a legion of hipsters in opposition to trite pop. Will they speak to those whom Limp Bizkit and N Sync ignored? Early signs point to yes. In 2002, the Rapture released a 12-inch single called “House of Jealous Lovers” produced by the DFA, a NYC team of Svengalis who have amped up the Rapture’s sound. (As if to prove that history is circular, rumor has it that the DFA are in talks with a certain Ms. Jackson about production work.) “House” was a wonder: Luke Jenner’s guitar phased in and out less like notes than an electric shock; over it he yelped like the newly resurrected hipster influence Robert Smith of the Cure, repeating the title mnemonically (like a good pop star should): “House of jealous lovers/One hand turns the other/house of
jealous lovers/house of jealous lovers/shake dowwwwwwwwn!” Matty Safer’s bass carried the little bursts of melody, but the real stars were percussionists Gabe Andruzzi and Vito Roccoforte, each of whom possesses a name you could not improve on if you made it up.
Traditionally, rock & roll rhythm sections skulk in the background, but in the Rapture, Andruzzi and Roccoforte get equal billing, and on “House of Jealous Lovers” they’re at the mix’s forefront, with a generous helping of cowbell, the ultimate party signifier. Hipster rock hasn’t been allowed to use a cowbell since 1970-something, and there’s something so cheesy about it, so wrong, so completely wonderful.
With airplay limited to clubs and college radio, the 12-inch sold well over 15,000 copies; it’s now being pushed as the lead single off Echoes. Smells like a cowbell.
What makes the breakout potential of the disco-punks doubtful is that they don’t seem willing to fully embrace that inner cheeseball — they may not understand dance music in a profound sense. The problem is, these bands don’t have roots in the mainstream sounds they’re trying to intellectualize.
Kurt Cobain was from a working-class town in Washington, a child of divorce, a white-trash dropout. He liked Black Sabbath as much as Beat Happening, and that’s why millions of burnouts could love him dearly. !!! and OutHud, by contrast, are from Sacramento, an administrative backwater devoid of funk. Even if the city did have a native dance scene, these two bands wouldn’t have come out of it. (Tyler Pope and Nic Offer, who play in both groups, were formerly in a hardcore band called the Yah Mos.) Simply stated, when you listen to !!! and OutHud you get a creeping feeling that they’re what Oasis’ Liam Gallagher would term “a boring bunch of fuckin’ stoodents.”
For OutHud, the disconnect between thought and feel is not a deal-breaker. They groove, but they’re not really trying to make you dance. OutHud is a five-piece consisting of bassist Offer, guitarist Pope, soundboard operator Justin Vandervolgen, utility player Phyllis Forbes and cellist Molly Schinct, and that’s odd. Why? Because groove bands don’t employ full-time cellists. Schinct, though, is OutHud’s focal point. She doesn’t just liven things up with grandiose swoops; her lazy, loping strings are more central to OutHud’s sound than disco ever was. S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. is 40 minutes of atmospheric dub dulled to a stoner’s edge by Vandervolgen’s post-production. Burbles pan and fade around your head. Treble ebbs and flows. OutHud aren’t trying to start a disco-punk revolution, they’re smoking pot to make music to smoke pot to.
The music of !!! (pronounced chik-chik-chik) is harder to abide. This summer, when they played the cozy confines of the Knitting Factory — usually one of L.A.’s stiffer venues — the floor shook, the walls began to sweat, people moved their asses. But there was a problem. I liked the circling, overamplified clatter, but the music didn’t indicate long study of the newest hot jamz from Ibiza, or even an awareness of them. No, !!! are a nostalgia act. Their music doesn’t reference the full-body electric shock of today’s dance tracks, but a more innocent juke and sway from a time before the rhythm box took over rhythm — the multiracial swagger of Booker T & the MGs (the ’60s); the deep groove of the Meters (the ’70s); the abstract polyrhythms of NYC’s Liquid Liquid (the ’80s). There’s nothing inherently wrong with swiping from great sources, but great sources do not a great band make.
When I listened to the flipside of !!!’s latest single, “Intensifieder (SunRaCapellElectroShit Mix 03),” the depths of their dilettantism began to piss me off. First came Offer’s nasal choke of a voice, a clear cue that this music wouldn’t pass muster in a club. “Can you feel it?” he asked. I wondered. A muttering voice in the background tried to convince me: “Feel it. Intensify. He’s trying so hard.” Then Offer burped and made some farting noises with his lips. While it didn’t quite indicate that this was a piss-take on dance music, neither was it a sign of respect.
On the single’s A-side, Offer does a little doodle: “Doot-da-doot-doot-dooo,” he sings, “doot-da-doot-doot-doo-doo-doo-doo!” While we’re dancing and having a good time, !!! are twiddling their thumbs.
By comparison, the Rapture’s nose for rehabilitation is a wonder. While nothing on Echoes rises to the level of “House of Jealous Lovers” (which is included on the disc, positioned at the dead center of the album), it sports many one-two punches of recombinant pop that strike me less like mixed metaphors than sexy doses of genre whiplash.
Take this sequence: The second track, “Heaven,” churns like Gang of Four’s regimented post-punk, while giving a glimmer of a less martial influence, Queen. This plays out on track 3, “Open Your Heart,” which swoops and swishes like one of Freddie Mercury’s stadium-rock torch songs. The next track, “I Need Your Love,” returns to disco, only this time as four-on-the-floor, Donna Summer–style Eurodisco. (The titular similarity to Summer’s “I Feel Love” — disco’s Rosetta stone — is more than a coincidence.)
So, yes, the Rapture bring some decidedly hot shit. But I wonder: In the contest to become the funkiest white boys in town, do they need to pay fealty to the world of credible, underground rock? Or did Michael Jackson’s spiritual brethren — the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears — take a clearer path to cultivating soul? The Rapture are funky, all right, but they ain’t no Justin Timberlake.
!!! | “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)” b/w “Intensifieder (SunRaCapellElectroShit Mix 03)” | (Touch and Go)
OUTHUD | S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. | (Kranky)
THE RAPTURE | Echoes | (DFA/Strummer/Universal)