“We are the surge,” sang Downtown Boys on “Wave of History,” the opening song on their 2015 album Full Communism. The record, the group’s breakout, was a punk-rock juggernaut of doubled-barreled sax blasts and bilingual call-and-response choruses that tackled themes like white hegemony, predatory capitalism, and police violence from a proudly Latinx, feminist, and working-class perspective. “Wave of History” made for the perfect summary of the Providence, R.I., punk band’s vision: furious and defiant, yet optimistic.
A lot can change in two years. These days, the waves are rollinin from the right, not the left, and they’re looking a lot more ominous. “The vibrations are very different right now,” acknowledged Victoria Ruiz in a recent interview with The Cut. “While all the lyrics were written before the current regime was inaugurated, we were writing about the feeling of being the target of white fragility, white supremacy, the police state, the homophobic state.”
” But what may have changed most for Downtown Boys might be their fortunes. Since releasing Full Communism, the group has played SXSW and Coachella and, crucially, signed to Sub Pop—putting them in a position similar to Fucked Up when they signed to Matador or Pissed Jeans when they joined Sub Pop. These are all big and, yes, risky steps for a crew with roots in labor activism (and links to Providence’s anarchist marching band, the What Cheer? Brigade) that built its reputation on confrontation and a refusal to compromise.
They’ve met those challenges with characteristic spark: Downtown Boys used their SXSW booking as a platform to call for the removal of a deportation clause included in performers’ contracts; as self-identified “workers for Coachella,” they assailed AEG founder Philip Anschutz for donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-LGBTQ organizations. But on their new album, they also sound like a changed band in certain respects. The record was produced by Guy Picciotto, of Fugazi (an ironic choice, if only because guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco once told Wondering Sound, “We love Fugazi and Minor Threat, but they definitely propagated this punk lifestyle individualism that we’re grappling with now”), and while Full Communism boasted the unfocused din and no-fucks-given sound quality of a basement show, Cost of Living revels in the gleaming, multi-tracked expanse of a professional recording studio. It’s a richer, fuller sound; the stereo imaging is wider and the saxophone (they’ve stripped down to just one, now played by Joe DeGeorge, who also handles keyboards) has more presence in the mix.
The bigger, brighter sound often serves them well. “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” begins with a thundering drum groove and a lean, serrated guitar riff, but horizons quickly open up as a second guitar line peels off from the first; it’s dissonant and searching in a way that seems to call into question the very premise of the song’s straight-ahead drive. That kind of melodic tension runs through the album. Locked into pummeling, no-nonsense grooves, drummer Norlan Olivo and bassist Mary Regalado make for a powerhouse rhythm section, while DeFrancesco’s guitar flashes like sheet lightning. And while their songwriting isn’t as complex as, say, Fugazi’s, it’s a step beyond hardcore’s conventional verse/chorus format, with most songs stretching out like long, rickety branches—intuitive yet unpredictable in their twists and turns. (Not everything bears such markedly hi-fi sound quality: The raging “Because You” and “Tonta” sound as gritty as ever, and classic minor-key hardcore changes and full-throated sax skronk actually come as something of a relief.)
At the center of the storm is Ruiz, whose voice carries like a megaphone on the front lines. Her lyrics remain one of the band’s greatest strengths. They’ve always been most effective when they’ve been least didactic and here, she presses deep into the poetics of confrontation. It’s easy to assume that “A Wall” is about Trump’s proposed border wall, but her line of attack stays wily, dodging and feinting like a guerilla fighter until she zeroes in on the song’s stark closing lines: “And when you see her there/I hope you see yourself/I hope you see yourself/And when you see him there/I hope you look/I hope you look.” Whatever she’s getting at—I hear in it a searing update of Embrace’s “As long as there are others held captive/Do not consider yourself free”—it feels like a way of humanizing the struggle, of implicating all parties in a conflict some would prefer to ignore.
Her best lines are full of this oblique, agile style of critique. “It ran so easily/Undone undone with mud and blood/Yes, I mind/Yes that’s ours,” she shouts in “I’m Enough (I Want More),” flashing a glint of the blade. “What about the table/Last I checked I built the table” she sings in “Violent Complicity,” a song about labor, exploitation, and, just maybe, their determination to be more than just another check-cashing indie band. Sometimes her lyrics go to the heart of how exhausting it can feel to perennially be drawing the arc of the moral universe down toward justice (“So when we're out there running all day who wins?/And when we’re inside crying all day who wins?,” from “Lips That Bite”).
Her lyrics aren’t always so successful. “Tonta” veers too far toward opacity, as if unwilling to lay all its cards out on the table. But such lapses are the exception, and on “Promissory Note,” a bouncy tune that filters X-Ray Spex’s dance-party punk through Fugazi’s knotty harmonics, she brings all her lyrical talents to bear on the feeling like you’ve been tasked with fixing all the world’s ills:
I won’t light myself on fire to keep you warm
I won’t carry you up that hill
I won’t carry you up that hill
I won’t light myself on fire
I won’t smile
I don’t care if you cry
Before you say hello,
Can’t fix you, fuck you too.
Before you say hello,
I don’t tread water to sip tea
And so I steal the watch
And so I steal the ring
In cleaning up their sound, have Downtown Boys lost some of their urgency? It’s a fair question to ask. But they have always put pleasure right up there alongside their anger—early on, they tagged themselves a “bi bilingual political dance sax punk party,” with an implicit emphasis on “dance,” “sax,” and “party”—and it’s worth remembering that in underground music, noise (harshness, ugliness, discord) often functions as a method of gatekeeping. You could certainly make the case that, right now, with brown people and working class people and queer people under concerted attack, what’s necessary is making music that invites a broad swath of potential fans and allies in from the cold. As DeFrancesco once said, “Love and rage together are greater than the sum of their parts.” Cost of Living is Downtown Boys’ way of proving that equation.