Is punk formulaic now? In a genre where the entire ethos is to abolish standards and pursue the un-pursued, it seems that most bands have become a cycle of tropes found in their contemporaries. Like, to be punk now is just choosing a path for your art like any other lain before you. Fortunately, there are still bands that walk on the grass rather than the paths such as Tenement, Hank Wood and the Hammerheads, and most importantly, Downtown Boys. Based out of Providence, Downtown Boys are a furious explosion of sonic tiers sewn under anti-authoritarian battle cries. On their newest LP, Cost of Living, the band finds themselves tightening up their sound, expressing their political upheaval even more, and not losing their edge at any point on the twelve track album.
Cost of Living opens with one of the niches the band is best known for, their saxophone. Like a cavalry trumpet, the saxophone is the first thing the listener notices on A Wall. The instrument announces that Downtown Boys is still a band that stands apart from other bands and they do it with pride and style. The next thing that comes in is the guitar. In the past, Downtown Boys’ guitarist, Joey DeFrancesco, was chord-y and furious like other punk guitarist before. But punk music has to be different, even from itself now that it’s been around for multiple decades. DeFrancesco’s playing is not so much matured on Cost of Living as it is just melodic; still furious, but more disciplined in musicianship.
On Promissory Note, the band delivers one of the best choruses on the album, “I don’t care if you cry”. Obviously if you’re familiar with the band, you know that politics are at the forefront of the bands lyrical content. Like other greats in the genre, Downtown Boys hold a mirror up to society; shouting down capitalism, homophobia, bigotry, and on Promissory Note the band challenges the standards of masculinity. The song speaks from the point of view of someone unwilling to change for a loved one when it’s forced, and the pride they take in doing so.
While the band has become more popular and broadened their horizons, the fire has not dwindled a bit. On the eighth track, Tonta, the band explodes out of their tight rhythm carried out up to this point. With a wild saxophone solo in the middle and Spanish lyrics, the band nods at their basement show roots. The subject of the song is simple, it’s a big “fuck you” (tonta is Spanish for dumb).
One of the benefits of gaining more notoriety is having the capability to experiment with the recording process now that money isn’t as much of a factor as it likely once was. On the interlude track titled Heroes, Downtown Boys do just that. While samples are nothing new in punk music, the band dedicates an entire track to one, and important one. The sample comes from a speech given by Aaron Swartz; the internet activist who stood at the forefront opposing the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012. If you haven’t heard the speech, I’d advise looking it up. The message that the sample carries, taking matters into your own hands, is important in understanding Downtown Boys’ career and true punk music in general.
The last couple of tracks, including Lips That Bite and Clara Rancia come across with less intensity in the sound than in the lyrics. Following the powerful interlude from Aaron Swartz, it’s tough to match the potency in sound so the focus is directed on the words for the remainder of Cost of Living. The album closes with yet another spoken word sample, this time taken from Providence writer Vatic Kuumba. The clip of him reciting his work follows the same idea that the Aaron Swartz’s speech expresses, taking problems into one’s own hands. A powerful note to end on and definitely one worth reiterating, especially in a subculture overtaken by non-individualistic thinking.
A lot has happened to Downtown boys since their second LP, Full Communism, in 2015. The band made their stance on the issues that dominated the social landscape in a way that rallied people together, but what happens when you need more people to rally? By signing to Sub Pop, the group made a risky move but one that was necessary. The politics are just as important as the music when listening to Downtown Boys, that’s what makes their albums an experience and not just an hour of good d-beats. But that message is useless when you’re preaching to a choir. The major label move will challenge a wider audience for the band in a good way, I just hope that they don’t lose their energy in doing so. People don’t need another band that sounds more like newscasters than musicians. What makes Downtown Boys great is not only their proactive stances, but the way in which they present them, and Cost of Living is a phenomenal example of how they do that.
Click here to listen to A Wall.
– By Mike Metcalf