Eighteen years ago, the would-be Afrobeat band from my hometown of East Lansing, Michigan, kept right on playing their free-Fela-now number after he was released from prison: It was their best song, they shruggingly explained. Which is probably why !!!’s Louden Up Now builds up to last year’s late-on-the-draw single “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard”; it’s not the best song on the album, but it’s the best groove, and they value grooves more than anything else. They dig drum machines just as much as the next funkbot, but what they really get off on is the moment-to-moment friction of human beat-keepers adjusting to each other’s inconsistencies. Say their name (any sound three times), and it turns you into a percussion instrument for a moment; play their record in total darkness, imagining it booming in a big room, and it sounds like a squad of rhythm acrobats, flipping around and through each other’s patterns.
Nimble as they are, !!! are definitely a little too certain of their own funkiness—it’s not wise 2 adopt Prince’s orthography unless U R him, and three versions of the refried hustle “Shit Scheisse Merde” are about two and a half too many. But treat singer Nic Offer’s demi-Tourettic outbursts as the sound of a talking drum that just happens to resemble Big Audio Dynamite–era Mick Jones, and they’re a lot more entertaining. The gamelan/steel-drum-sounding percussion that loudens up “Pardon My Freedom” makes Offer’s drawling invitation to the president to suck his fucking dick (rhymes with “like I give a fucking frick”) sound like he’s just playing to the beat.
The action on Louden Up Now is directed almost entirely by John Pugh XI’s brittle, crackling post-punk drums and Justin Vandervolgen’s slithery bass parts. !!! only use their horn section about as often as people normally use exclamation points; their guitars don’t riff, they fidget and loom. (Even so, they’re slick enough that it takes a while to notice that this is the most atonal dance band since the Contortions.) But Louden Up‘s best moments are buildups and breakdowns adapted from ’70s disco—the sorts of tricks that used to be signaled by “A Tom Moulton Mix” on 12-inch labels. “Hello? Is This Thing On?” repeatedly swan-dives into an unabashed conga break; each time “Giuliani” reaches a dynamic crest, its entire texture transmutes so fast that everyone’s lifted two feet off the dancefloor. Maybe they should have written a protest song about Ed Koch.