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Downtown Boys - "Cost Of Living" | Album Review

by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)

Downtown Boys is as much a mission statement as they are a punk band. The Providence, RI collective has felt like an act of resistance ever since they came into the musical and public discourse with their second LP 2015’s Full Communism. The band carries on a tradition of music-as-manifesto punk that culls from all the right places. The howling confrontational posture of frontwoman Victoria Ruiz traces back to Poly Styrene. Joe DeGeorge’s saxophone is reminiscent of Steve Mackay’s contributions to Funhouse. Melodious when need be, cacophonous when the time is right. There’s also a certain intangible political guiding force to Downtown Boys’ sonic presentation that reaches beyond Ruiz’s overt lyricism. The music itself feels leftist. It hits hard, hits you over the head even, with a roar that demands attention to the realities which guide the fury.

The band’s newest offering, Cost of Living, works within the foundations laid out on Full Communism but creates something even more expansive and ambitious. While most of Full Communism’s songs worked short and fast, the tracks on Cost of Living are given room to stretch. It’s these moments of space that are amongst the record’s most exciting and the multilayered production of Guy Picciotto brings an ideal balance of tension and warmth. While it feels like the band is sonically taking steps forward, Ruiz’s blunt politics carry a whole new weight under the political regime of 2017 (even her use of the Spanish language feels like an act of defiance). “Cómo fucciona la boca rompida / Cómo fucciona la clara rancia / Razón por la cuota melanina / Razón por el barrio felonía,” she screams on “Clara Rancia,” “How does the broken mouth work / How does the clear rancid work / Reason for the melanin fee / Reason for the neighborhood fee.”

While Downtown Boys may have dialed the pace back on Cost of Living, the short/fast formula of Full Communism still comes through on tracks like “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” and “Tonta.” The latter finds Ruiz over and over again yelling “Ruido o criminal / Olvide, olvido, olvida” (“Sound or criminal / Forget, I forget, He forgets”). One of Ruiz’s greatest strengths as a lyricist and as a singer is her use of repetition. Throughout Cost of Living key phrases are repeated many times over. The effect finds the listener focusing in on the phrase, unpacking it and analyzing the meaning. “A wall is a wall / A wall is just a wall / A wall is a wall” she cries on the album’s opening track. The song was inspired by Assata Shakur’s poem “I Believe In Living” which is very specifically about Shakur’s prison sentence. But in hearing Ruiz repeat the phrase, a wall presents so many forms. A wall is a prison wall. A wall is Trump’s wall. A wall is a dividing line. As Shakur writes, “It can be broken down.”

On its surface the album title Cost of Living probably invokes some of life’s inconvenient expenses. Rent, utilities, food, student loan debt. But over the course of the record’s 12 tracks, a light shines onto the depth of the phrase. What is the cost of living for People of Color in this country? For women? For the LGBTQ community? The cost of living for the Latinx community? The cost of living is continual resistance, the demand to be heard. In an interview with Noisey Ruiz states, “some of us are People of Color and some of us are women, and some of us are Queer and that makes our survival an act of resistance.” It’s resistance that guides these songs. Resistance is what they’re screaming about. Listen.

(One hundred thanks to Morgan Fett and Andres Roldan for translation help.)