On BODEGA, and the Imitators and Innovators of Punk

"Borrowing from older genres and mining long-forgotten albums is a birthright of any hard working, smart musician."

I was raised on punk, but I drifted away from it as my music tastes shifted and what I wanted to do with a guitar changed. (Some of my earliest forays were making rip-off Red Kross music.) That’s in no way meant to denigrate any of the bands I grew up listening to; it’s just that, to me, the songs were more of a means to convey the message and the attitude. A lot of bands manage to screw this up, and we’ve all seen our fair share of bad shows. Punk is a genre where there are many imitators and not very many innovators. But after listening through Endless Scroll by BODEGA it’s clear they stand as innovators. The marriage of their minimalist arrangements and sneeringly self-aware distaste of the cultural moment feels like a much-needed forward movement for the genre.  

There has always been a confessional aspect to songwriting, whether it’s the blues or early country or whatever. Recently, the oversharing brought about by social media has been embraced by the music of pop/rap stars. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about what in the end could be the commoditization of personal problems for entertainment. But Endless Scroll’s lyrics are much more observational than personal, and the record is all the better for it. BODEGA’s lyrics shine light on the everyday occurrences and interpersonal relationships of millennial metropolitan life. Whether they are calling out the absurdity of a $9 smoothie in “Can’t Knock the Hustle” or comparing their daily lives and interactions to “Jack in Titanic,” they are obviously self-aware and possess a strong sense of humor. I think by not venturing into the political or art-for-the-sake-of-art poem-lyrics, they avoid a lot of the clichés that have turned me off of newer punk/post-punk. While they don’t go all the way in unpacking the hypocrisies of what they are singing about, they do a good job of highlighting our current cultural condition.

Musically, this album feels inspired by the New York punk of the ‘70s, the likes of Television and Richard Hell. The bass reminds me a lot of Peter Hook. I remember a story about the Ramones and how certain songs would sound much better live than on record, not because of any one thing, but because of how practiced the songs had become through touring. Within minutes of my first listen, I was struck by how cohesive the interplay between instruments was. The minimalist ensemble gives me the impression that these songs had been practiced and played out a ton of times. The way the arrangements fit together in a lock-step way is, I think, maybe an unintended reinforcement of the computer-like vibe that infiltrates the record, starting with the robot voice that introduces the first song, “How Did This Happen?!”

There are also moments on this record where the influences show in humorous ways. For example, “Boxes for the Move” has the same swing and color palette of the Velvet Underground song “The Gift.” “The Gift” is the spoken-word story of a guy trying to not pay for airfare, so instead he decides to mail himself to his girlfriend, only for his girlfriend to stab him in the head while she is opening the package. While BODEGA never gets that macabre, the smirking sentiment and playfulness is definitely similar. The one song that breaks with the formula has to be “Charlie.” Instead of angular guitars and bouncing bass, we are treated to a guitar-strummed number with singer Ben Hozie breaking into a croon. The chords have hints of the Troggs’ song “With a Girl Like You.” BODEGA succeeds in making connections to some really great musicians and albums of yesteryear without crossing into overly nostalgic territory.

It’s this absence of intentional nostalgia that makes me so enthused about this record. I think borrowing from older genres and mining long-forgotten albums is a birthright of any hard working, smart musician, but when nothing new is added I’ll be flipping the record player off and jumping out the window. The fact that BODEGA has been able to walk the line between observation and sarcasm with their lyrics without being too jokey or preachy is a massive feat. What’s even more massive is that they’ve found a way to crack through the familiar and usually unsurprising mold of millennial punk bands where the attention is mostly paid to a juicy backstory or narrative instead of the songs. Something about what BODEGA is singing about is universal. How come every time I feel like I get a handle on the world around me, it flips around into some bizzarro version of what was once familiar? Who knows? And if someone told me that answer I’d probably tell them they were wrong. I believe drawing from the well of self-awareness and self-deprecation is a useful lyrical tool, and making sarcastic yet cutting observations on the human condition is all we can hope for in way of answering it.

On the path to his second album The Diet, Cullen Omori relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles and reexamined his whole artistic process. “On this record,” says Omori, “I was like, ‘I want a break with the convention that I had steadily been building since releasing music as a teenager.'” The Diet was recorded with Taylor Locke at Velveteen Laboratory in Los Feliz, in early 2017. It represents a new chapter for the former Smith Westerns member, one in which he stretches out his songwriting chops and uses his life experience to craft loose-limbed, hook-filled songs that combine pop appeal with finely sutured lyrics.