WHEN YOU'RE a Washington rock band with two albums and three singles on the fiercely independent Dischord Records, all produced by punk legend (and label co-founder) Ian MacKaye, there are going to be certain expectations about your sound and direction. Thankfully, Q and Not U delight in defying them. The trio's new album, "Power," to be celebrated Friday with a show at the Black Cat (1811 14th St. NW; 202-667-7960), is the sound of a band that refuses to stand still and resists easy categorization.
When Q and Not U's first record, "No Kill No Beep Beep," was released in 2000, every review seemed to name-check MacKaye's band Fugazi -- an apt comparison, given the quartet's proclivity for disjointed guitars and propulsive beats.
After bassist Matt Borlik left the band, Q and Not U went through something of a wilderness period as a trio. Guitarists Harris Klahr and Chris Richards and drummer John Davis began to fill the gaps in the band's sound with synthesizers and eclectic instrumentation, and their next album, "Different Damage," showed a love of electronic dance music creeping in beside the ringing guitars. But it's still something of a surprise when "Power" kicks off with "Wonderful People," where a synth bass line burbles under relentlessly funky drums and chirpy, spiky guitars that could have come from some punky Isaac Hayes. "7 Daughters" and "Wet Work" offer up slinky electronic rhythms and smooth falsetto melodies, and "Beautiful Beats" thumps along on a bed of keyboards and disco beats.
This isn't all uncharted territory: The bristling low end and jittery guitars of "Tag-Tag" provide continuity with the band's stripped-down early sound, and "X-Polynation" and "Book of Flags" are propelled forward by staccato guitar riffs and Davis's insistent drumming, even as woodwinds and keys slide into the mix.
"For us, the evolution sort of naturally happened," Davis says. "I think the things you're hearing on ['Power'] are things that have always been on our records. There are just a lot of songs on this record that are much deeper. Since the first record, there were certain things we lost interest in, but this exposed other elements, like dance music and keyboards."
Some of Q and Not U's new material invites comparisons with voguish bands like !!! and the Faint, who marry '80s new wave beats and synthesized sounds with punk-friendly guitars in a loosely grouped genre called "dancepunk." While Q and Not U shares a tendency to get otherwise too-cool scenesters shaking their hips, Davis doesn't want to be lumped in with the DJ-friendly media darlings.
"When people talk about [dance music], I think they're not seeing the whole picture, especially with our records -- there's all kinds of stuff on there," Davis says, adding that the band members are "big fans" of '70s British folk acts, such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle. "That's something that started sneaking in," Davis admits, most obviously in the high vocal harmonies on the mellow, recorder-driven "Throw Back Your Head" and hymnlike "District Night Prayer."
Also influencing the band's direction was a change in production duties. After years of working with MacKaye and producer Don Zientara, Q and Not U decided to put "Power" in the hands of Rafael Cohen and Pete Cafarella, members of label mates El Guapo. "We thought, 'Let's shake things up on this record,' " Davis explains. El Guapo's Dischord releases have explored electronic rock grooves, and "musically, we're on the same page as them. We thought they'd be good at translating what we want to do."
Earlier this summer, after a mini-tour of the United Kingdom, a friend with contacts in South Africa offered the band several dates in that country. Q and Not U leapt at the opportunity, but the band has some mixed feelings about its experiences. "We were just saying that we're not going to talk about that tour ever again," Davis says, adding diplomatically, "We were really lucky to get over there, to get off the plane and see Africa." The trip was "a mix of good and bad," and Davis would rather talk about the band's nonmusical experiences -- swimming in the Indian Ocean in Durban, walking through crowds of penguins at Cape Town's Boulder Beach, visiting the Apartheid Museum -- than the half-dozen concerts. "I'm not sure we were the right band to bring over," he says, explaining that the shows "were on the small side, and the music that was popular on that scene seemed to be ska-punk, although we did meet some people who were into [Q and Not U] and were really nice."
But it was a learning experience, and yet another chapter in the band's never-ending road trip. After Friday's show, Q and Not U heads to Cleveland, and tours almost nonstop until mid-November. After a two-week break, it's off to Europe for three weeks, including dates in London, Prague, Rome and Barcelona. But travel has its benefits. "We play live so much that our songs change, and usually become more sleek -- even if we expand them," Davis says. "I feel like we're always going to drift back and forth between different kinds of music. But as long as Q and Not U is around, I can't imagine that we'd ever abandon loud rock music." (See CD review on Page 9.)
A 51ST STATE OF MIND
51st State (2512 L St. NW; 202-625-2444) is essentially a by-the-book pub: exposed brick walls so worn they may have been sandblasted; a mix of high-backed booths and tall, round tables; the bar and matching chairs are gleaming dark wood. It has a large, enclosed sidewalk patio, a dozen beers on tap and a few televisions that seem to be permanently fixed on ESPN.
So what stands out about this relaxed watering hole?
Framed on one long wall are enormous 1930s Guinness ads featuring characters from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass." In one, a rampant lion and unicorn wrestle over a bottle of Guinness as Alice and the Red King look on. "Does the one that wins get the Guinness?" asks Alice. "Dear me, no," says the King. "The one that's had the Guinness wins."
Another features the Walrus and the Carpenter, who have apparently moved on from discussing shoes and ships and sealing wax. " 'If seven men with seven tongues talked till all was blue / Could they give all the reasons why Guinness is good for you?' / 'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter, 'But that it's good is true.' "
Scattered throughout the pub are John Gilroy's iconic "My Goodness, My Guinness" advertisements, in which crafty zoo animals steal Guinness from their hapless keeper. Near a pool table on the second floor, one poster depicts a kangaroo sneaking a bottle of Guinness in its pouch. That one dates to 1934, explains bar owner Joe Lyon, the man who assembled this impressive collection.
"I've always been a big fan of Guinness and their marketing," Lyon says. "Most of it, I know when it was printed -- there's a story behind every one." Lyon found most of the items on display through dealers in the United Kingdom, who regularly e-mail him photos of new arrivals. Lyon is a connoisseur of vintage advertisements -- the newest ones here are from the 1960s.
But the 51st State is not just an outpost of Dublin's Guinness museum; the two-story building is decorated with concert posters trumpeting Shane McGowan and the Popes; weathered metal signs selling whiskey and cigarettes; and political memorabilia from Northern Ireland.
For the past eight years, Lyon worked at Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. He managed the bar, poured drinks, worked in the kitchen, checked IDs at the door. "I did everything it took to keep the place together," he says. While working his way up, Lyon became friends with owner Joe Englert, one of the city's smartest night-life visionaries. Englert is the man who gave Washington places like the Big Hunt, Lucky Bar, DC9, Politiki, the Insect Club and State of the Union.
When Lyon told Englert he wanted to open his own tavern, the boss agreed to partner with him. "I like to take hardworking managers and give them their own place," Englert says. "Joe worked at Capitol Lounge for us forever. He was there from day one." The two men bought 51st State's building earlier this year, renovated it and opened the first week of September.
With two bars on two floors, a single pool table and a menu heavy on staples such as sandwiches, burgers and wings, 51st State isn't out to impress anyone -- but it'll make you want to return. Daily happy hour deals include specials for lawyers on Wednesday nights, and $10 buckets of beer and $1.50 hot dogs for Giants, Jets and Bills fans during NFL games, plus special shooters after each New York touchdown. Neither Englert nor Lyon is from New York; the allegiance is for business purposes only. Says Englert: "No one [in Washington] caters to New York fans. There's no love for the Giants or the Jets, so we decided we'd show those games, and the Yankees playoff games. I think it's a great niche."