There is a tendency, by some, to lump all punk music together. It’s nothing more than loud and sloppy four-chord noise, they might say. But that’s dangerously reductive, especially since punk’s never ever been just about the music, and there’s so much riding on the words — you know, the typically uncomplicated phrases that, when shouted over chunky riffs, become something more like protest chants.
Downtown Boys — a bilingual, five-person collective with a fondness for heavy guitar work, brass instruments, and yelling — have helped continue that tradition. The Rhode Island band makes music for world-weary, empathetic humans trying to survive the age of Trump. Their mission is old school, but their anti-oppressor mentality feels extremely contemporary. These songs sound exactly like right now.
Two years ago, Downtown Boys put out their second full-length, Full Communism, on New Jersey DIY label Don Giovanni Records. Their confrontational, patriarchy-bashing third LP, called Cost Of Living, comes out on Sub Pop August 11. Sub Pop isn’t a major label, but it’s a famous one, and signing with an established institution feels unexpected for a radical group like Downtown Boys. It’s a move that suggests the group is at least somewhat concerned with visibility, and that they want to spread their empowering messages.
Produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Cost Of Living is full of declarations that force personal reflection. These are clear-cut statements, radical in their simplicity: “The stakes are high/ And it can’t be just about getting by,” lead singer Victoria Ruiz explains on “Violent Complicity,” a midtempo album cut with bright chords and collective shouts. The song talks about the invisible labor, both physical and emotional, that women and queer people and people of color perform daily. The livid-sounding “I’m Enough (I Want More)” continues the narrative of fighting to get paid what you’re owed, with Ruiz demanding not just acknowledgement, but actual power. “Your time has come and gone,” she roars amidst break-neck bass. “And now we’re here.”
These are songs that work hard to show just how high the stakes really are — and that change in the system could be accomplished by amplifying marginalized voices.
Downtown Boys are good at using their own experiences and emotions to paint a giant, striking image of what it’s like to be a real person in America at this particular moment in time. These are songs that work hard to show just how high the stakes really are — and that change in the system could be accomplished by amplifying marginalized voices; “Get outta my city,” goes “It Can’t Wait,” Ruiz raging against gentrification. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?/ You’re worried I’ll treat you like you treat me.”
Downtown Boys do not shy away from history. They’re influenced by figures as disparate as Bruce Springsteen, who Ruiz admires for always highlighting class conflict, and Assata Shakur, whose poem "i believe in living" inspired the song “A Wall,” Downtown Boys’s unsubtle drag of Trump’s ridiculous proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico borders. “How much is enough?/ And who makes that call?” They’re interested in punk’s history, too; their sound is reminiscent of the 1970s British band X-Ray Spex, best known for their saxophone-packed thrashers and for their iconic frontwoman, Poly Styrene, a half-Somali hippie who wrote lyrics like “Do you see yourself/ On the T.V. screen/ When you see yourself/ Does it make you scream?” Ruiz’s voice is a little less wailful than Styrene’s — more aggressive, smoldering, and a touch raspy. But she’s just as insistent on feeling heard. “I cut the hand/ That shakes the hand/ That shakes the hand/ That shakes the hand/ That wastes my time,” Ruiz hollers on “Lips That Bite,” over a sea of resonant bass. “I won’t lay down/ I won’t stay down.”
The seed of the original punk movement was about social frustration, inclusivity, and doing it your damn self. The fact that Downtown Boys are working with a not-exactly-DIY label doesn’t really seem to matter so much. What matters is that one of the coolest punk bands in recent memory is releasing an incredible whirlwind of a record that’s informed by the past, but also very much of the moment. Cost Of Living is a testament to our need for Downtown Boys's spirit, and to the possibility of compassion in the quest for equality. Hopefully that spirit will reach more ears than ever.