Album of the week | !!!, Thr!!!er
I’m a music critic. I’m white. And I like funk.
The first 45 I can remember spinning is M’s “Pop Muzik,” a fluke novelty single of the disco era by a kooky British guy. I imaged it was music made by the cute robots of The Black Hole and Buck Rogers. It sounded like the future.
Flash to my elementary school lunchroom. The tables have been collapsed and pushed to the walls. At our third grade talent show in rural Indiana, every girl twirls and hops to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Or “Beat It.” Anything off Thriller. At the end of the ’80s, my best friend and I wore out a blue cassette of Paul’s Boutique. MCA in the afro wig, throwing the keys to his Coupe Deville at an oil pumpjack, Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” bumping away. Or was that the Commodores’ “Machine Gun”? Or Cameo’s “Shake Your Pants”? Zapp? “Jungle Boogie”? It was all in there, that history lesson of a song and video. Meanwhile, my older sister, always playing Prince, popping open beers in flared pants for tips at a club called Bellbottoms.
From there on to skating, punk. Sure, the Descendents, but secretly the stuff with slap bass. Mike Watt and the Minutemen. Fishbone and Flea. Hell, even Fugazi’s “Suggestion.” Backtracking to Gang of Four, PiL. The obsession with bass blossomed into a love of hip-hop, and festered into Primus fandom. What rap album of the early ’90s didn’t lift from “Atomic Dog” or James Brown? The Pharcyde, Black Sheep, Digable Planets, Brand Nubian, the Jungle Brothers. Later Daft Punk, “Da Funk”; the Chemical Brothers. Midnight Vultures. Yes, Ok Computer blew my mind, but wasn’t the best song, “Airbag,” basically a cold, alien funk tune?
I suspect Nic Offer of !!!, a little older than I am, shares a similar history. Frankly, I hated his band’s self-titled first album in 2001. It was too straightforward, too simplistic, too devoid of the prospects of sex. In other words, it reeked too much of jam-band cheese. I never bothered to keep up. A few years ago, !!!, or Chk Chk Chk (as it is more easily said and Googled), moved to Warp Records, home of Aphex Twin, Autechre and other deconstructed laptop music I lapped up. The group had cycled through nearly a dozen members. Huh. At SXSW, promoting 2011’s Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, Offer was onstage in short-shorts, thrusting his pelvis at bewildered writers with beards and wristbands. In the face of chillwave, shitgaze, witch-house, et al., that was heroic. Not even James Murphy would let himself go like that.
With Thr!!!er (see?), Offer blows away his past accomplishments with gusts from his trunk. His voice is still somewhat clumsy and brutish, but now he has the smarts to bring in a soul diva to back him up, as on “One Girl / One Boy,” “Except Death” and “Slyd.” Formerly, the 40-year-old shook his fist as much as his ass, grunting political slogans. Now, on “Slyd,” a girl coos, “Slide, slide, slide, I like you on the inside. I don’t really like you but I like you on the inside.” Epic bass booms like the footsteps of Zeus. House piano stabs away. Warped vocals squirm above it all.
In this old studio footage of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a disorientingly young Flea asks Freaky Styley producer George Clinton, “What is funk, George?” The Funkadelic man answers, “Perfect funk is jazz.” It is that, I suppose, but it is also something off. The funkiest music always has something a touch off. A cowbell a little off the rhythm. A guitar pushed too far up front. A bass pushed through filters, fuzzy and smearing at the edges. Strange synthetic pulses swarming like gnats. It has to stimulate the brain as much as the body. Funk is fearless stupidity. A daffy duck vocal. A frontman bordering on madness. Songs about swimming and God. Wah-wah, vocoder and talk-box.
Thr!!!er packs all of this into an economical nine songs. Gated snares hiss in “Fine Fine Fine.” Acoustic guitar plucks away loudly over digital squelches in “Careful.” The nipple of every sound in the mix is twisted and feathered. The bass is unfathomably deep throughout, like Gap Band deep. That is the big difference here. Finally, the influence of having an electronic-centered label is finally sinking in. Chk Chk Chk is letting go of the punk in disco-punk. Let it go. Offer is more concerned with getting us on the dance floor, not into the voting booth. As the temperature finally stretches into the 80s, no other album makes sense this week. This is the funk album of the year. And, admit it, you need one of those in your life from time to time. At least, I do.