Downtown Boys Cost of Living

[Sub Pop; 2017]

Styles: punk, hardcore, major label conglomerate punk
Others: Pissed Jeans, Jaunita y Los Feos, Exotica, Bad Breeding, French Vanilla, X-Ray Spex, Fucked Up, Against Me!

Downtown Boys proceed through Cost of Living — their third full-length — with a clear-eyed confidence about their trajectory and their newfound position at Sub Pop. This position is significant, a strategic act that should be considered against any critique that might read such upward mobility as contrary to the band’s efforts or core values. Cost of Living takes the (perhaps phased out) charge of economic opportunism presupposed by rockist sellout whistleblowers and turns it on its head. For Downtown Boys, an acute sense of opportunism allows not only a broader reach for their voice, but also a continued livelihood that allows personal focus on political work both within the band and external to it.

“Cost of living” — the economic term appropriated for the album to sit under — refers to the continued work and struggle it takes for many just to get by. It refers to the economic reality of work, the under-recognized labor behind radical action, and the hardships of daily life. In this is the work it takes to speak up, live intentionally, participate politically, and make forward-thinking creative work. Across the album are songs that speak to these struggles with clarity and depth.

The album’s opener, “A Wall,” is admittedly underwhelming as a rally cry. Its recorded tempo and gridded rock feel come off as somewhat polite. At first look, its subject matter feels a little on-the-nose and overly of the moment. Its chorus (implicating Trump as its adversary: “A wall is a wall/ And nothing more at all”) risks naiveté given circumstance and drops in amidst the Trump administration’s current chaos with a light ripple of resistance. Nonetheless, the song is a useful example of singer/lyricist Victoria Ruiz’s particular lyrical brilliance. “A Wall” uses economically few unique lines (about 20) to draw a number of resonances across its vocabulary. The song pulls at ties between the material reality of immigration, the harsh bias that governs citizenship, the mental toll these processes take, and the private policing of our subjectivities. With a few words, Ruiz teases out the toll of evaluating subjects based upon their economic potential. Additionally, Ruiz collapses the distinctions of interior and exterior (indoors/outdoors, personal/political, private/public), placing one atop the other almost mechanically:

“My public worth
Fuck it
My private worth
Fuck it
A public cop
Fuck it
A private cop
Fuck it

[…]

From the front side
To the hidden side
From the front side
To the hidden side

A wall is a wall
A wall is just a wall
A wall is a wall
And nothing more at all”

While “A Wall” is not the most exciting (or even most lyrically illuminating) that the album has to offer, it usefully opens Cost of Living to new listeners with a clear statement of principal and an approachable sound.

While a few songs interject to maintain the rabid pace of earlier releases (“Because You,” “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas),” “Tonta”), most come through with a mid-tempo energy that might fall flat were it not rejuvenated by dense song forms, disjointed and atonal harmony, and Ruiz’s characteristic snarl.

“Violent Complicity” stands out as a particular highlight of the album, culling together a strong union between these effects. A major 9th chord hangs over the already catchy verse to suspend tension across the argument being made. The song plays under a tangential but politically mobile banner — “Violent Complicity ” — and eventually makes its way to the all-important second verse. This verse inherits its idiomatic seat-at-the-table imagery, prying, “What about the table/ Last I checked I built the table/ I built the arms/ I built the legs/ I built the chairs/ I cut the wood.” Here is Downtown Boys staking a claim on participation in a larger conversation and inviting other marginalized voices in.

The decision to collaborate with Guy Picciotto (Fugazi, Rites of Spring) behind the board proves fruitful at times while lackluster at others. The hi-gloss production that delivers Cost of Living shines in many ways. Keys add depth and invite a new musical lexicon within the relics of punk archaeology that Downtown Boys scour and cite. The first several seconds of “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” serve as a refreshing spark to a rumbling D-beat anthem: an oscillating string with an obscured attack steps into the pulse to introduce a brief spattering of sequenced hand drums, inviting the swirl and tumult of the song to follow. Beyond these triumphs, however, certain aspects of Cost of Living’s production — over-compression, distant drums, adherence to a click perhaps a few notches too slow — inhibit some of the viscera that make for a more inspired rage. Cost of Living’s glossy mix lacks the energy that a dry finish brought out on Full Communism1.

Listening to the album, I remember the many bands that were my earliest gateway to punk culture and, consequently, radical politics. Some of them, I suspect, might not hold up so well were I to revisit with a critical lens (e.g. Green Day, NOFX, Blink-182, Pennywise, etc.), while others might find more kind words (e.g. Propagandhi, Bad Religion, Minor Threat, Operation Ivy, and so on). Nonetheless, these bands were a part of opening up a subculture that, at its best, encourages a skepticism toward hegemonic thought. Punk has the potential to open up a space in which new approaches toward life practice may exist. Of course, such a space is not always immune to the toxicities beyond it, a point that Downtown Boys are happy to identify and fight.

Ideally, Cost of Living (in tandem with its predecessor Full Communism) may be a gateway for those tangentially interested in anti-hegemonic politics and radical approaches to life. It may direct new listeners to the old, more confrontational material by the band. The brittle harsh aggression of Downtown Boys and Downtown Boys 7” made for a more inspiring interruption of civil life than Cost of Living, which more aptly goes with the flow. Other new listeners may find Spark Mag, a webzine run by members Joey La Neve DeFrancesco and Victoria Ruiz that boasts the tagline “Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight.” Here, a multitude of voices are given access weekly.

It is in this spirit that two tracks arrive near the end of the album, “Heroes” and “Bulletproof.” They don two separate quoted voices: one of activist/programmer/writer Aaron Swartz and the other of writer Vatic Kuumba. It’s a significant integration of others with sympathetic messages to share. Both speak in their own way about the ties between the personal and the political and how those ties relate to collective struggles. Their messages are digestible and respectable, following suit with Cost of Living’s sound. Swartz triumphantly holds: “We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story,” a claim that is not necessarily at odds with any dominant Western culture but is certainly useful for animating a subordinate one. Cost of Living seizes access and redirects energy. Its effect is mild. Nonetheless, beyond the pragmatism it bears, Downtown Boys’ message and intent is not compromised.

A record that, upon its release, already sounded to me somewhat overworked and pristine for the frenetic energy of the band it carried (this feeling, however, partially arose out of missed expectation; I had purchased and heard Full Communism knowing Downtown Boys by a single song, “Maldito,” one of the more aggravated listens the band’s harsh debut has to offer).

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