Album Of The Week: Downtown Boys Cost Of Living
On their 2015 sophomore LP, Providence punks Downtown Boys throttled authority with a saxophone by their side. The album was called Full Communism, and it primarily spoke to working-class America; not the working-class America made up primarily of white people in rural parts of the country, the faction that Donald Trump appealed to so heavily in 2016. Rather, Downtown Boys appealed to an America made up of workers of all colors and creeds: people who work day in and day out, who will never own a home, who will pay rent to a landlord until they die. People who work in factories. People who work in offices. People who clean the offices after everyone else has gone home. People with high insurance deductibles and pre-existing conditions. People who live and work in this country and are still branded as “illegal.” Downtown Boys sang about white hegemony and the capitalist condition on Full Communism with a fury so profound, so unrehearsed, that the album felt immediate and empowering. It is a gut punch with a message that keeps on giving 2017.
The title of Downtown Boys’ third full-length (and Sub Pop debut), Cost Of Living, suggests that the themes on the new album pick up where Full Communism left off, that this is an album that investigates the way an imbalanced economy fuels white supremacy, police brutality, exploitation of young people of color, exploitation of workers everywhere. But Cost Of Living does more than just call out and indict those who make this world a hellpit. It also asks listeners to figure out where we find our humanity when all systems fail us, to dream up a better future of our own design. How do we survive when the powers that be are trying to kill us? How do we help those more vulnerable than us survive when the powers that be are trying to kill them? And most importantly: How do we make time and space to care about our mutual survival?
Cost Of Living doesn’t purport to have the answers to any of these questions, but it does ask that you resolve to think up your own. The album’s centerpiece, “Violent Complicity,” starts with a few loud instrumental crashes before lead singer Victoria Ruiz starts howling about a kitchen table, a gathering space where people share ideas and nourishment. In the song, the table is collapsing as Ruiz explains that she built it herself. “The stakes are high/ And it can’t be just about getting by,” she snarls at anyone who plays spectator in today’s increasingly hostile political arena. The effect of watching her say this to an audience gives you the feeling that you’re not doing enough, and that’s exactly what it’s meant to achieve.
Ruiz is a full-frontal, confrontational performer, and a Downtown Boys show can often feel like a rally. During live performances, Downtown Boys introduce each song with a different short polemic about a current sociopolitical issue, and Ruiz’s microphone could easily be replaced by a megaphone. When Cost Of Living’s most recent single, “Lips That Bite,” premiered, the band dedicated the song to the battle to keep net neutrality in place. There’s a kinetic quality to Downtown Boys’ live shows, and some of that energy is inevitably lost when the band enters the confines of a studio. Full Communism sounded great if you were able to play it on full volume, but even so, it lost some of that incendiary live appeal.
Cost Of Living doesn’t suffer from that problem. The band enlisted Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto to produce the album, and you can hear some his band’s sensibilities in these songs. There are serious grooves on Cost Of Living, chugging basslines that propel one song into the next, mood pieces that are thick and urgent and tightly controlled. Downtown Boys’ signature saxophone is deeper in the mix but it’s still there, accompanying new squealing synth noises that could double as an alien landing on songs like “Because You.” Synths underscore two monologues on the album, too, one of which is called “Heroes.” It’s a recording of Demand Progress’ founder Aaron Swartz, who took his own life when he was threatened with a decades long prison sentence for making private academic documents public. These added flourishes bring moments of rest and a musicality to the loud and fast progression of new songs. Cost Of Living is refined, an example of a band who can still make an album sound angry and alive under its surface sheen.
That calculated production gives Downtown Boys a lot of space to do what they do best: write and record anthems that sound like a reprieve rather than an onslaught. The album opens with “A Wall” which is, as one would expect, a sound-off to Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the US/Mexico border. And the best thing about it is it’s the kind of song that would piss off anyone who really thinks that something as simple as a wall is going to end any problems wrought by immigration. Ruiz is accompanied by bandmate Joey L DeFrancesco, and when the breakdown hits, they spout a certain truth: “A wall is a wall/ A wall is JUST a wall/ And nothing more at all.” The refusal to acknowledge that any barrier is insurmountable is what gives Downtown Boys’ lyrics their power. And if you broaden your perspective on the song, that wall in question could apply to various conflicts happening around the world at any given time: It could reference the Israel-Gaza barrier; it could be the wall surrounding a gated community; the watchtowers circling a prison; the fence separating you from a neighbor.
In a recent profile, Downtown Boys’ bassist Mary Regalado spoke to the fact that the band writes a fair number of lyrics in Spanish. “I don’t care if [non-Spanish-speaking] people are receptive to having our songs in Spanish — it’s not for them,” she said. And in a lot of ways, the songs on Cost Of Living that take up the most space, that sound the most intense and assertive and bold, are written in Spanish. Songs like lead single “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” the title of which loosely translates to “We’re Smart And Savvy/ (We’re Not Stupid),” or the album’s most rousing tongue-twister “Tonta,” are affecting regardless of your comprehension of the language. Those songs are as much about promoting a message as they are about simply taking up space in a country dominated by the white cis majority. When the ruling party is trying its absolute best to deport undocumented Latinx people living in the US, hearing the spiraling, razor-sharp “Clara” dominate your brainspace for three and a half minutes is an effort to both validate and uplift some of the country’s most embattled people.
Anger is a pretty common emotion in 2017, and while it’s good to be angry, it’s also good to have resources with which to navigate that anger. Cost Of Living is one of those resources; it’s an album that confronts white supremacy and attempts to give the most vulnerable members of our society a sense of agency when their livelihood is threatened. Cost Of Living ends with a poem written by the Providence-based writer, curator, and teacher Vatic Kuumba. He recites a piece titled “Bulletproof” over an emotive, airy bed of synths that grows louder with his voice as he declaims:
But we don’t need to convince the snakes or the flowers to tear down the walls outside the garden. We just need to live, keep breathing and succeeding throughout the decades. Some force is waiting to strike, make you saint against your free will, entrap your name in a hashtag. So fam: Stay beyond woke. Stay safe. Stay bulletproof.
It’s a bold choice to end an album with another artist’s voice and words, but it’s the perfect move for a band like Downtown Boys. They make music that aims to inspire some spark of radical progress in this country, and the torch is all of ours to bear.
Cost Of Living is out 8/11 via Sub Pop.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kesha’s hard-fought return to the spotlight Rainbow
• Oneohtrix Point Never’s Cannes award-winning original score for Good Time
• Tall Friend’s warm and intimate Safely Nobody’s
• The Cribs’ Albini-influenced 24-7 Rock Star Sh?t
• The Districts’ throw-some-shit-on-a-canvas-and-see-what-sticks artful pop album Popular Manipulations
• Gillian Welch collaborator David Rawlings’ down home country album Poor David’s Almanack
• Frankie Rose’s dreamy, sci-fi inspired Cage Tropical
• Butch Vig’s new group 5 Billion In Diamonds debut self-titled album
• Hootie & The Blowfish’s Mark Bryan’s solo production Songs Of The Fortnight
• Experimental pop auteur Paul Kelly’s “normal record” Life Is Fine
• So Much Light’s indie-pop Anti- release Oh, Yuck