Review: !!! – Shake the Shudder

The ungoogleable band !!! (pronounced ‘chk-chk-chk’) has long been a prime candidate for a “best of” album. Their studio albums to date have been decent enough, but each contained one or two tracks that blew all the others clear out of the water. Just to name some examples, their self-titled album had “KooKooKa Fuk-U,” Louden Up Now had “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story),” Strange Weather, Isn’t It? had “Jamie, My Intentions are Bass,” and THR!!!ER had “One Boy/One Girl.” In general, !!! made songs that were great and albums that were good.

There are two exceptions to this rule, and both are for positive reasons. Their 2007 album Myth Takes is arguably the band’s crowning achievement, dense with excellent tracks from start to finish. Then in 2015, !!! released their sixth album As If, which was more of a grower. It showed the band moving away from their previous dance-rock sound into more electronic-based dance music, and several guest vocalists complemented frontman Nic Offer. It also featured the excellent guitar-driven track “Every Little Bit Counts,” and a slew of funky tracks like “All U Writers” and “Freedom! ’15.” As If was a little all over the place, but in the end it sounded nothing like the band had done before and turned out to be one of their best releases.

Shake the Shudder essentially continues where As If left off, upping the caliber of the dance party this time around. There’s no grand reversal to dance-rock, and it instead expands into the disco, funk, and house music-inspired direction of its predecessor. Nearly every track is driven by a pumping dance beat and synthesizer melodies, with bass grooves and jangly guitar riffs playing a more supporting role. In terms of vocals, Offer rarely sings in a straightforward manner or without any added effects, and the distorted low voice on “Our Love (U Can Get)” echoes As If’s opening and closing tracks. Also just like its predecessor, Shake the Shudder features a slew of female guest vocalists including Meah Pace, Nicole Fayu, Cameron Mesirow, Molly Schnick and Lea Lea. These women have a more prominent place in the limelight this time around, and on tracks like the opener “The One 2,” Offer is barely noticeable thanks to Lea Lea’s strong performance.

 

While there are some strong similarities between As If and Shake the Shudder, the former was generally more experimental and reached out in different directions, while the latter plays to the band’s greatest strength: the ability to make an amazing dance music. In other words, Shake the Shudder contains the highest concentration of !!! songs that get you moving. Potentially the best of these is “NRGQ,” which starts with disco guitar strumming and builds with off-kilter synth blips that evoke LCD Soundsystem. As the song expands in a sonic collage, Offer and guest vocalists switch between signing, semi-rapping, and Eurodance-style deadpan speaking, all while a synthesizer melody mimics the track’s inquisitive verses such as “are you feeling sentimental, are you feeling insecure?” “Imaginary Interviews,” later on the album, is a little less chaotic but just as energetic, and its use of hi-hat, synthesizer, and occasional electric guitar shredding make it one of the most compelling !!! tracks to date.

Shake the Shudder isn’t all uncharted territory for the band either, and some songs recall the !!! of yesteryear with slight twists. The drum loops and bass grooves on single “Dancing is the Best Revenge” fill the verses with swagger similar to “Jamie, My Intentions Are Bass” from Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, yet “Dancing is the Best Revenge” has a much more explosive chorus and features Offer singing in a pitched up tone.  On the flipside, his tone is pitched down tone on “Five Companies,” which likewise has instrumentation reminiscent of earlier !!! albums. This track’s lyrics criticize “five companies, running everything I see around me,” but don’t worry too much in the end, stating “blah blah blah, the end is near, everyone predicts in every single year.” This isn’t too far off from Louden Up Now’s “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story),” which took lyrical shots at its namesake while also including calls for “everybody cut footloose – now everyone cut, and shake that butt.” You can count on !!! to maintain a “dance it off” ethos, and the album title Shake the Shudder is apparently a “fancy way of saying ‘shake it off and dance your cares away.”

Since Shake the Shudder benefits significantly from its dance-centric cohesion, it falters slightly when stepping out of this mold. The greatest offender is the album’s most experimental track, “What R U Up 2Day,” which has a solid beat but also includes vocal samples from a toddler who sings lines like “I can’t seem to find my toys.” The result is less the children-led chorus of “Little Secrets” by Passion Pit and more the awkward child-cover of “Career Opportunities” on the Clash’s Sandinista! – a compelling reason to keep kids off albums. Preceding this misstep is “Throw Yourself in the River,” which is an innocuous enough track, yet its cut-and-dry nature doesn’t quite fit with the rest of Shake the Shudder. Lyrically, it’s also the second-best !!! song about metaphorically plunging in water behind “Even When the Water’s Cold” from THR!!!ER. And while As If closed out with the grand finale of “I Feel Free (Citation Needed),” Shake the Shudder goes out a kind of lackluster note with R Rated Pictures, the only track on the album without any sort of dance beat.

While !!! were labeled “dance-punk” when they debuted in the early 2000s, the band gradually shed the “punk” part of this moniker, and Shake the Shudder really solidifies this transition. Some may mourn this loss and wish !!! retained a greater degree of its rock credentials and punk edge, yet at seven albums in, the band has done all they can to prevent stagnation. As Offer said, “we felt like we had to be consistently in that territory of trying new things. We want to be able to compete with our younger selves.” Besides, “dance-punk” always seemed a nebulous term anyway, and bands like !!! and the Rapture seemed better described as “disco rock.” Regardless of what genre you want to call it, Shake the Shudder emerges as one of !!!’s strongest albums, and its ability to inject new energy into their sound shows they’re nowhere near running out of steam.

Rating: 8/10

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