With each new release, Q and Not U has gradually been evolving into something more unusual and compelling. In the beginning they were a righteously spastic punk band, playing wiry, abrasive jams that took their D.C. hardcore roots and fertilized them with a youthful, playful sensibility. Different Damage combined their spazz punk with post-rock like experimentalism, showing a more mature version of the band, though one still bent on causing a ruckus. And now, the band is back with Power, which sees the band venturing further into the funk realm of preceding single “Book of Flags,” almost abandoning their previous guitar heavy assault entirely and replacing it with clean guitars, falsetto vocals and bigger, fatter synth tones.
To some this may cause worry, as Q and Not U seem to be abandoning their punk rock past entirely in favor of something new altogether. But this is not the case. Underneath the idiosyncratic elements, there lies a punk ferocity that has always been in place. Only this time around, it has more style and finesse. Q and Not U has never sounded as comfortable and as weird as they do now. Chris Richards, Harris Klahr and John Davis aren’t afraid to experiment, which takes some getting used to. But once you do, Power yields one of their most rewarding and fun listens of 2004. And as the name suggests, it’s one of the most powerful as well.
First off, there’s the guitars. The band seems to have tossed the distortion pedals aside, save for in the rocking “X-Polynation” (a re-recorded version of last year’s single) and the bridge of “Collect the Diamonds.” Instead, the band opts for a more slick, clean sound a la mid period Talking Heads or Prince, giving this new batch of songs a sense of sophistication without taking away from any of the playfulness. But even without the aid of overdrive, the songs rock as hard as ever. Just listen to closer “Tag-Tag,” if you don’t believe me.
Then there are the synths. As a trio, Q and Not U have become far removed from the conventional guitar-bass-drums lineup into a revolving ensemble of guitar, bass, synth, drums, melodica, hand percussion and this time around, apparently, flute. On Different Damage, their use of synth was noticeable but not overpowering. Here, however, it’s much more prominent, as a fat bass synth sound drives songs like “Wonderful People,” “LAX,” “Wet Work” and “Beautiful Beats.” These songs instantly recall former hometown heroes The Dismemberment Plan, though even more soulful. It’s a bizarre turn of events for the band, as a synth-funk band was the last thing we would have expected four years ago, but judging by these songs, it was the right direction.
Lastly, there are the vocals and lyrics. Chris Richards has taken on a newly discovered falsetto, which drives the anthemic “Wonderful People,” the folky “Throw Back Your Head,” the hymnal “District Night Prayer” and the re-recorded “Book of Flags.” But Harris Klahr has also taken new directions with his voice, as in the subdued narrator of the goth-sounding “Dine” and the paranoid delivery of the Bible-referencing “7 Daughters.” But the lyrics have become even more poignant this time around. As anyone who has attended Q and Not U shows recently might have noticed, the band is taking a more concrete political stance, aiming to get one of their neighbors on Pennsylvania Avenue evicted by use of voter registration at shows. But their political agenda is as much a part of their music as the funk jams, because the band aims to put people in voting booths as well as on the dance floor. “Wet Work” is an ambiguous, yet biting indictment on government censorship and infringement upon civil liberties. And last year’s anthem “Book of Flags” takes on banner-waving jingoists with caustic vitriol: “A pining plaything, so false, so pleased, your flags are aching to bloom from distant grounds, drowning out every sound.”
Q and Not U have set the bar pretty high for dancepunk here on out. With Power, they’ve redefined political party by making it a celebration, rather than a division. This is the sound of a band challenging conventions and putting forth new, interesting ideas. This is the sound of power.
Dismemberment Plan – Emergency and I
Talking Heads – Fear of Music
The Clash – Combat Rock
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.