Album Review: Cost of Living by Downtown Boys

AlbumCost of Living
Artist: Downtown Boys
Release Date: August 11, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “A Wall,” “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas), “Lips that Bite” and “Clara Rancia.”

Thoughts: The Providence-based, bilingual punk band is back with an energetic new album filled with hard riffs and pointed lyrics.  I particularly like it when the horns kick in.  This is the music for our fraught political times, filled with anger but leavened with hope.
Rating: ****


Song of the Week: “America Says Hello” by The Chills

This week’s song “America Says Hello” is a caustic broadside fired at the hegemony and militarism of my native country by New Zealand’s The Chills.  I’d never heard of the band before this week, but they had much success in New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s with their jangly-guitar rock style reminiscent of R.E.M.  Their new album Silver Bullets sounds musically like it could’ve been released 25 years ago, and sadly the political and environmental messages in the lyrics sound like not much has changed since 1990.  An excellent album, worth a listen.


Song of the Week: “Most Space” by Worriers

Brooklyn-based punk band Worriers just released an excellent album called Imaginary Life.  The humorous video for “Most Space” is below, although my favorite song on the album is “Life During Peacetime,” which I could not find a way to stream.

Also check out the All Songs Considered interview with Lauren Denitzio of Worriers and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, who produced the album.

RetroMusic: Shriek of the Week Playlist

I recently signed up with Rdio, a music streaming social network that provides access to a boatload of music for a monthly fee.  I’ve enjoyed being able to listen to a lot of new discoveries and digging up old favorites.  For example, I listened to Prince and the Revolution’s “Around the World in a Day” for the first time in at least 25 years.  That was a new album around the time we moved to a new house in 1985, and while all my other tapes were packed in a box, that one had just arrived in the mail so I ended up listening to it over and over.  It’s surprising how many of the songs seemed completely unfamiliar despite that.

On that same nostalgia vibe, I also payed tribute to one of my favorite New York area radio stations of my youth, which was known as 92.7 WDRE-FM when I listened to it, but was also known as WLIR.  This was the “left of the dial” radio station that played Post-Punk, New Wave, Modern Rock, Alternative Music, whatever moniker you wanted to slap on it (oddly, the term “alternative” became most popular around the time that R.E.M and Nirvana lead the music into the mainstream in the early 90s).

One of the features of WDRE was a contest for the best new song of the week called the “Shriek of the Week.”  Apparently, during the WLIR days there was the rhymeless “Screamer of the Week” that did the same thing.  There is a list of all the Screamers & Shrieks from 1980 to 1996 here:

I made a Rdio playlist of the Screamer/Shriek of the week covering my junior high and high school days from 1985-1991.  Rdio had many, but not all, the songs from the list and sadly it seemed to be the quirky one hit wonders that didn’t make it to the playlist.  Still it’s a good playlist that gives one the sense of those exciting days of the 80s and early 90s, if one can excuse a little too much exuberance for artists such as The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Erasure, U2 and Morrisey who seemed to have entire albums elected as Shrieks over the course of several weeks.

If you are on Rdio and have the time and energy to populate the rest of the list, have at it.  I may go back and fill in the earlier days of the 1980s.  I feel it may be too sad to go forward in the 1990s and watch the musical erosion, especially when you get to the third week of June 1994 when alternative music officially jumped the shark.

Oh, and apparently WLIR lives on as an internet station with some of the original DJs.



Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg

Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Movie Review: loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies

loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies (2006) is not your usual concert film. Following the Pixies successful reunion tour in 2004 from Western Canada to Europe and finally to the United States, the concert footage is interspersed with scenes of the band rehearsing, traveling, and otherwise killing time on the road. The title loudQUIETloud is a good description of a typical rave-up Pixies tune, but the all-capital QUIET also describes the band off-stage. They are all nearly introverts, which is quite okay as I can totally relate to that, but on the bad side they are also unable to communicate with one another which is the root of all the turmoil in the band’s history. The long silences in the film are really telling on how this group of four individuals operates.

When not performing each band member has their own project to work on. Bassist Kim Deal is writing and recording songs for a new album for her other band The Breeders (and now the Breeders have a new album). Lead vocalist Charles Thompson is also working on songs for his solo work under the name Frank Blank. Guitarist Joey Santiago is scoring a film on his laptop. And drummer David Lovering enjoys performing as a magician. Kim Deal’s twin sister (and fellow Breeder) Kelly is along for the ride as well to help keep Kim sober and injects some outgoingness into the film as she attempts to mediate disputes among the band and interviews devoted fans.

The most striking thing about loudQUIETloud is just how normal the Pixies seem to be for a band that rocks loud with eccentric lyrics. You would never expect to see Black Francis looking like an ordinary dad going to a corn maze and an aquarium with his stepson. Deal drinks non-alcoholic beer throughout. The biggest scandal on the tour is when Lovering uses too much Valium and can keep time on the drums.

This is a very personal film, but the best parts are still the Pixies on stage doing what they do best.  I am a bit bummed that there’s no footage of the band during their Lowell, MA performance in Dec. 2004, because I was at that show.  They do however drive around Boston visiting old haunts from when they started gigging back in the 80’s.

Movie Review: Punk’s Not Dead

Last night at the Brattle Theatre I saw Punk’s Not Dead (2007) a fun documentary about the music, the lifestyle and the culture that is punk. Starting with a history lesson, the movie takes us back to the birth of punk – the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and many, many others. Punk democratized music because just about anyone could form a band. This do-it-yourself mentality carried over into producing punk records, creating punk record labels, publishing punk magazines, forming networks of performance spaces for punk bands (usually someone’s basement), and finding places for all the bands to stay while on the road (usually someone’s floor). There’s no division between the bands and the fans.

Fast forward fifteen years. To the outside world, punk is long gone but then returns with a vengeance. Foreshadowed by Bad Religion and Operation Ivy, Nirvana stormed the charts and set the stage for more commercially successful punk acts like Green Day. Of course, punk never went away and many of the bands from the 70’s continue to perform and record right up to this day including the Sub-Humans (one of whom is this movie’s most interesting commentator), the appropriately named UK Subs (two band members discuss the band’s many lineup changes) and the Adicts who still have the same lineup they started with in 1975. These bands talk about growing old and raising families while still living the punk lifestyle (with cute images of their children rocking out).

And then there’s punk’s third generation, one that is labeled “pop punk” at best and includes bands like Good Charlotte and Sum 41. Older punks criticize these bands for going for image over substance, saying that punk is more than colored spiky hair and jumping up & down in rhythm. Always contrary, other older punks are just fine with these younger bands doing there own thing. Didn’t the Buzzcocks sing of love (the documentary then shows evidence that love songs are more common than many punks would like to admit)? Still, the spirit of punk is alive in kids 13-15 years old, forming bands and playing a house party in Echo Park, CA or in numerous places around the world where punk thrives.

Love songs or not, the heart of punk it politics. One interviewee said that “punkers are just hippies with teeth” as they take on the government, big business, and the norms of society. Yet there’s still a lot of controversy. Is a punk song in a car commercial a sign of punk success in working its way into greater society or is it selling out? If corporate sponsors help bring your tour to a greater listening audience is that a betrayal of punk ethics or is it just taking money from the man?

There are no easy answers to these or any other questions. The movie is overly ambitious in trying to cover punk from every angle and will probably disapoint some diehards while confusing some of the uninitiated. Despite all that there are a lot of clever, funny, and insightful bits and best yet some rocking good music. So I liked it, and if you disagree, feck ya!

Punk Rock is Aging

Over the past few years I’ve been listening to more and more punk music, both from the 70’s & 80’s and the contemporary standard bearers of the form. I missed out on the punk revolution mainly because I was a child at the time and not really in a position to experience music from outside the mainstream. That and for many years I foolishly confused punk with heavy metal, which I loathe.

Being 33-years old and two decades past punk’s prime I’m somewhat divorced from the revolutionary aspects of punk even as I’m appreciative of its sound. Two recent articles discuss this disconnect. In “Never Mind the Ipods” John Harris bemoans that punk rock is now just another commodity.

hat with an omnivorous media, the low hum of rock music accompanying our every waking moment, and a groovily permissive political class, how could any aspiring heirs to punk’s mantle make their mark? What hope for youthful irreverence when people in their late 30s treasure “edgy” CDs? Here’s one wonderfully symbolic difference between now and then. Whereas the punks attracted such thrilling opprobrium, any modern youngster in possession of a loud guitar and a grudge against the world stands a good chance of a fate that will kill any rebellious pretensions stone dead: inclusion on David Cameron’s iPod.

A more upbeat article by Jim Sullivan “Ageless punk rockers and the AARP” extols the virtue of punk to keep one feeling young even when a Buzzcocks’ song is used to promote the AARP.

[Buzzcock’s guitarist Steve Diggle said]”I [first] thought, it’s going to be bad for our image – it’s for old people. Then … I realized it was for people 50 and over and I realized me and Pete are over 50. But I kind of don’t gauge my life by my age.”

“When I was kid, growing up,” continued Diggle, “people who were 50 were pretty historic. Having arrived at the mark, … it’s not that bad. Rock ‘n’ roll does keep you at a level end; it’s ageless in a way, particularly in the mind. People still listen to rock ‘n’ roll at any age.

“There is a greatness about being old. You can still keep your dignity, if you keep your health and strength. It’s like climbing a mountain and being on top: You can see more than ever. I wouldn’t want to be any age other than what I am now.”