Q and Not U
By Amir Nezar | 20 October 2004
I remember seeing Q and Not U’s live show, at the first iteration of what would prove to be an increasingly successful run of rock shows under the auspices of Charlottesville, VA’s Fest Full of Rock (later the new yearly show would rein in Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Unicorns, and RJD2, who produced one of the single most giddy, fun sets I would ever witness).
Now, Q and Not U were not revelatory; mostly they sounded like a group of guys who were elated with the opportunity to deliver their post-punk doses to the masses on the periphery of their D.C. scene. That they could inspire a motley crowd of curious students into some semblance of supportive energy transformed the jokes I was tempted to make about their name and album title into mild praise to peers who asked about this rock show affair.
Two years after that live show, after the release of the righteously powerful follow-up Different Damage, I pick up Power, and to my dismay, Q and Not U have degenerated. Littering their album with frail songwriting and all but killing off the aggression of their percussion, the band inexplicably jump into ill-advised stylistic misfires—with a few too many missed falsetto notes. What’s worse, they make a supremely ironic trade on this third LP: an exchange of so much of their previous power for an uneasy, melodic bent.
Which would be well and good if the band could hit notes, or had a particular talent for minimalist-leaning arrangement, or even benefited from smart production—but they can’t hit notes, aren’t minimalists, and the album’s production is terrible. Nearly every track sounds as though it was recorded live, with the rhythm recording levels at “neuter.” Vocals, regrettably, tend to be the highest elements in the mix, either embracing a second-tier MacKayean rough edge of earnestness (see “Tag-Tag”), or crotch-vice attempts at high-notes.
The group’s first move is a climate-conscious dancepunk kick; “Wonderful People” emphasizes its rhythm section, focuses on a nearly dizzying array of hooks—from bass squelches to vocal hooks to funk guitar patterns—and, despite its falsetto-failings, makes for an encouragingly ambitious opening statement. But the group wastes no time clattering into “7 Daughters,” a tangle of unexciting synths tending towards static blandness, over deplorable kitchen-sink percussion.
From then on, Power declines into something akin to watching a friend in a doomed race; he tumbles terribly on a number of hurdles, and though it’s encouraging to see him get back up each time, the plain fact is that he’s going to finish last. “Throw Back Your Head” is a bone-breaker of a fall, landing into a flimsy melody by means of a recorder, of all things. It may be redeemed by “Wet Work”’s rhythmic push, melodic funk guitar hooks, and artful organ embellishment, but cringe-inducing “District Night Prayer” attempts an ill-advised precarious vocal harmony that sinks because Q and Not U can’t sing. For some, the valiance of the attempt justifies the failure of execution—but so many failures of execution inevitably make the repeated mistake a trying one.
In the long run, Q and Not U always manage to secure a redemptive pattern for themselves following their sometimes crippling stylistic ankle-turns. “Beautiful Beats” mercifully attends to that desperately-needed rhythm section, while managing one of the band’s few successful delicate melodies, and “X-Polynation” unfurls on the tail of relentless snare-patterns, nailing a hook to the wall before carrying the album to a full-steam finish.
But having to constantly make-up for missteps means that Power necessitates liberal use of the skip button—which is so aggravating because it’s easy to see that the band’s weakest attempts are universally their quieter, more cloying melodic pieces. Q and Not U’s strengths were their great rhythm, tight music-writing, and powerful hooks. Rather than stick to these strengths and flesh out their assault, the band have tried to fix what wasn’t broken in the first place. That Different Damage‘s shit-kicking power and drive has given way to this waffling, castrated effort is, frankly, a shame. Q and Not U were prepped to make a cataclysmic impact on the D.C. Scene, but have ended up a “kerplunk” in the Potomac.