A funny thing about punk rock: It’s always been pastiche. The Stooges ground up hammerhead Detroit hard rock with Doors-ian self-laceration and free jazz’s embrace of wild, twisty noise. The Ramones took ’60s garage-rock riffs and Beach Boys melodies and played them as fast as possible. The Sex Pistols were as much a svengali creation as the Monkees or One Direction, but they drew from all the great riffers and snarlers of the previous two decades of rock history. In a sense, punk, as much as rap, is music criticism masquerading as music. Every band picks the things its members like, and it goes running with those things. Sometimes the band changes as it keeps going. Maybe it develops its own language, or it becomes a touchpoint in itself. But it always starts with something. And the Philly trio Dark Thoughts started with the Ramones.
“Dark Thoughts is a Ramones band.” That’s something that frontman Jim Shomo has said, out loud, about his own band. He didn’t need to say it. It’s all right there in the band’s sound: the turbocharged melodies, the wildly economical brevity, the absolute lack of anything remotely pretentious or show-offy. The Ramones are the basic foundational influence of pretty much all American pop-punk, but Dark Thoughts cut that right to the bone. Shomo even sings in an East Coast trash-twang, half-swallowing his words, the way Joey Ramone once did. And the 12 songs on Dark Thoughts’ 18-minute self-titled debut almost play out as one long, euphoric riff-bash, no distinctions between tracks necessary. There are other influences in there, as well. I hear a bit of the Misfits, a dash of Descendents. But even those bands were, more or less, Ramones disciples.
Of course, there have been plenty of Ramones disciples over the years. What makes Dark Thoughts special is the energy and vitality they bring to it. Dark Thoughts play Ramones-style punk rock like they just learned that such a thing exists and they can’t wait to try it out. It’s got this dizzy sugar-rush urgency that I just love. I first heard about this band a year or two ago, after my friend Mitch saw them at a Richmond house show and came back raving. (Mitch is a fellow dad whose daughter is good friends with my daughter and who was once in a touring band called Ye Olde Buttfuck. I trust him on this kind of thing enormously, and that first Dark Thoughts album bore my trust out.) Mitch has seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of punk shows, and he still saw something special in Dark Thoughts that night. And the great thing about At Work, the band’s new sophomore album, is how they’ve somehow gotten even more fired up about bashing out songs like these.
DIY punk bands don’t typically last for more than one album, especially if their sound is as rigid and focused as what Dark Thoughts bring. But At Work does all the things that a sophomore album from a band like this should do. It’s no cleaner or more professional than the band’s debut, and it doesn’t veer much from the formula. (This one is 12 songs in about 19 minutes.) There’s a guitar solo here, a processed backing vocal there, but it’s mostly done in the same all-out mid-fi rush. And yet the melodies sound just slightly more confident, the band just a little closer to what its members probably had in mind.
For me, the best moment on At Work — and the best moment that Dark Thoughts have given us thus far in their brief existence — is “With You,” the softest and most sensitive song that they’ve ever made. “With You” is not a a power ballad; it’s a two-and-a-half-minute hookfest. And yet it’s slower and more uncluttered than the average Dark Thoughts track. It’s a straight-up love song: “You’re so smart / Just like S-M-A-R-T / I know one plus one is two / And that’s yoooouuuuu and me.” For the first minute or so, it’s just Shomo and his guitar, but rest of the band lurches into gear at the exact perfect instant, with the pre-hammer-drop peal of feedback even hitting just right. The song transitions straight into the faster, angrier “Watch You Walk Away” in a way that will always pair the two songs up in my head. But the moment that lingers is the one just before that feedback, when we’re listening to a rocker drop his armor for just a quick, tender moment.
One of my favorite things ever is when a pop-punk band stops worrying about being punk, even if it’s just for a second. (Especially if it’s just for a second.) The demo version of the Mr. T Experience’s “Sackcloth And Ashes,” for example, is just Dr. Frank and his tremolo guitar rhapsodizing about a girl’s pretty party dresses and Manic Panic tresses and about the “you” who’s “never gonna stand a chance.” It’s a bitter and nasty song in a lot of ways, but the way Dr. Frank sings it is so soft and lost and hopeless that I find myself loving it anyway. “With You” hits just the same way. It’s a minor miracle, and a clear sign that Dark Thoughts are picking and choosing the absolute right shit from rock ‘n’ roll history.
At Work is out now on Stupid Bag Records. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Nine Inch Nails’ don’t-call-it-an-EP album Bad Witch.
• Kamasi Washington’s gorgeous, sprawling, ambitious double album Heaven And Earth.
• Teyana Taylor’s as-yet-unheard, as-yet-untitled Kanye West-produced album.
• Gang Gang Dance’s floating, blissed-out return Kazuashita.
• Vein’s mathy hardcore shit-ripper errorzone.
• Death Grips’ noise-rap attack Year Of The Snitch.
• Michael Christmas’ personal and expressive underground rap LP Role Model.
• Best Coast’s children’s-music album Best Kids.
• So Stressed’s nervy punker Pale Lemon.
• Mommy Long Legs’ chaotically catchy debut Try Your Best.
• Soulwax’s meticulous dance-rocker Essential.
• Dawes’ reliably scratchy roots-rocker Passwords.
• Nef The Pharaoh & 03 Greedo’s Porter2Grape EP.