Downtown Boys are on the streets, marching, rioting, singing.
I had a Twitter conversation a few months ago with another music critic about the various anti-Trump rallies popping up around the United States. He wondered what these rallies really accomplished. My response was that they were excellent places to find like-minded individuals to work together in the community. Also, it was damn good to have a little catharsis.
And that sort of catharsis is the music of Downtown Boys. Their last album was titled Full Communism, so you know what they’re about. But any pat statement on their politics would be underrepresenting just how smart and pissed they are. They take aim at queerphobia, racism, corruption, war mongering and capitalism itself with aplomb. They aren’t as nuanced as, say, To Pimp a Butterfly, instead relying on sheer emotional grandeur. It’s the Minor Threat/Crass/Bad Brains school of political messaging: make them dance, scream and mosh and they’ll get the point.
The lyrics were written before the election, but to say they take on a new light is a bit disingenuous. After all, the cracks and failings in American capitalism were there long before they facilitated Trump’s rise to power. That being said, having a barn burning opener called “A Wall” is pretty damn invigorating. It’s Downtown Boys at their most punk and anthemic. “A wall is just a wall!” is followed by a cry of “fuck it, fuck it, fuck it!” Subtle? No. Absolutely needed? Yes. Vocalist Victoria Ruiz sounds like she always has a megaphone in front of her. You get the sense she could sit down and talk policy with you, but right now she’s too damn mad. She’s matched by the music swirling around her. The band’s prominent use of sax is a clear reminder that the Springsteen runs deep. And, like the Boss’ most political works, Downtown Boys fuse hope with fuming rage well. “I’m Enough (I Want More)” pulses with atonal guitars as Ruiz shouts for basic respect, which seems a bridge too far to cross for her enemies. “As if there were a place to run!” she shouts. For Downtown Boys they weren’t born to run. They’re done running.
Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto handled production duties for Cost of Living, and outside of the obvious passing of the torch vibes, Picciotto makes everything wonderfully gritty. The bass tone seems tangible enough to take a bite out off. It’s particularly great during “Promissory Note” as Ruiz screams “I don’t care if you cry” with the bass rubbing salt into the wound. That’s another neat trick that Downtown Boys pull off. The influence of various Ian MacKaye-led bands is obvious. The Cost of Living probably could have fit well in Reagan era rage, but they filter that influence rather than become dependent on it. Downtown Boys are thoroughly modern while paying respectful tribute to their idols.
Respectful is not a word that comes up often in Cost of Living. This album is an album of riots. Outside of their band, allies are unclear, but the enemy is glaringly obvious. The album’s release just before the Charlottesville riots and murder is uncanny. As the track “Violent Complicity” screams, Downtown Boys will not be told to be peaceful while their friends are mowed down. “It will be loud!” Ruiz yells. And, indeed, they don’t just show light on Nazis and Confederates, but they’re also ready and willing to fight them in the streets.
The Cost of Living feels so vital because it’s not just a document of the times, or a surface level scanning of issues. Unlike so much modern “political” music that falls into a sardonic appreciation of the world, Downtown Boys are on the streets, marching, rioting, singing. They want to be in the thick of it, because that’s the only way things will change.