Downtown Boys Command Our Attention

On Cost of Living, even the most aggressive sounds are nuanced.

Downtown Boys’ new album, Cost of Living, is a visceral and, for me, visual listen—I can’t talk about Downtown Boys without talking about their live show. As I play Cost of Living, I can see them in their places on stage, performing and moving through each song together. I watched them for the first time this year in McAllen, Texas at the Dreams showcase at Yerberia Cultura, a venue in the border town. When I walked around the streets near the bar, there was a delicate silence—not a Brooklyn silence, where the environment is controlled by waves of people arriving and leaving, talking outside your window or slamming doors in apartment buildings. In McAllen, there wasn’t tons happening, but the way the music from the festival filled the street gave it all an iridescent feeling.

I like loud and fast music. I like when performers spill out into the audience, breaking down the barricade between the crowd and the stage. Downtown Boys are experts at both. They sound like an environment. Their music is filled with details that create a bodily and auditory feeling. Singer Victoria Ruiz dances as if she is an earth magnet, shifting the polarity all around you, pushing and pulling. Her voice on the recording sounds that way, too, moving in and out. It’s impossible to pick up all of her words the first time, and that’s powerful. She leaves you with something to discover on future listens, which Cost of Living demands. Like their live shows, Downtown Boys’ record commands attention. The 12 songs, in 34 minutes, touch the listener directly.

I first began to deeply appreciate the album at the end of the second song, “I’m Enough (I Want More).” The guitarist and bassist play a resounding, repetitive riff in unison as the drums build up to a particular 4/4 kick, then a marching roll. The ending sustains what sounds like a piano stab, making me hold my breath until I exhale with relief after Victoria sing-screams her last “YES!” I feel and believe that “yes” as it leads right into my favorite jam on the record, “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas).”

This song! “Somos Chulas”—this song fucks me up. I was called “pendejo” plenty of times growing up. For non-Spanish speakers: It essentially means dummy, and is almost always used in a specific context: You really fucked up a simple and obvious task. It’s usually a parental figure calling you this, and you feel dumb. Since childhood, I’ve also heard older men call younger women “pendejas,” which is demeaning in a different and particularly harsh way. It’s not just that you’ve done something wrong—it’s more aggressive and cruel and gendered. The word takes on a whole new meaning when Victoria sings, “Somos chulas / no somos pendejas,” in the chorus. She subverts “pendejas” by declaring her band “chulas,” which, in my mind, means “badass” in English. If you look up the word, you’ll see “cute” or “pretty” as the translation, but the word is actually way more empowering than those definitions imply. “Chulas” makes the song goliath. If it were some trippy sci-fi movie, those words would melt the dumb dudes who say it to women to try and put them down. Those are personal and political lyrics, and their message inspires empowerment we can all feel, regardless of language.

Victoria is intentional with her words throughout Cost of Living. I think of how, on “Promissory Note,” she sings, “I don’t care if you cry.” It’s so powerful—even in its harshest statements, all of this music feels kind and warm. It doesn’t feel “raw,” or “punk,” or any of the other words that are often used to describe Downtown Boys. It seems really myopic to just say they’re a “rock” band. I like writers who describe Downtown Boys by inventing new genre-language—I can’t remember where I read this, but I love the phrase “punk funk.” Just, damn. Punk funk feels right. Punk funk tells you it’s OK to shake your ass at their show or in your room, listening to the record alone. Punk funk is expansive. I feel good with this music. I feel love with this music.

So many choices on this album—so many intros and outros—are unexpected. There is a patient, sensual approach to the pace and structure of when and where the band decides to let certain music happen. The beginning of “Because You” is a graceful example. It’s almost at the halfway point on the record; it’s the song that gives you the chance to fall down backwards, take a breath, and wait to be caught by the next track. At the two-minute mark, Victoria screams over a brooding bass. The lyric sounds like, “You didn’t even know you were you.” It could be, “You didn’t even know you were here.” Whatever the phrase, you get goosebumps. It’s a total surprise when the song’s intensity returns, but it’s exactly what I wanted. On Cost of Living, even the most aggressive sounds are nuanced.

That brings us to the instrumentation. The synthesizers and saxophone are two of my favorite instruments, and they are so strong on the album. Where they peek through on Cost of Living is subtle. They sneak up on you. It’s wonderful at the end of “Promissory Note” when the sax comes in; it feels like a mutated chorus balancing Victoria’s chants. The intro of “Lips that Bite” does this, too, opening with a thin, droning synth line, like a thread that sews up the chords once the rest of the song starts. Studios are tricky, and working in them creates pressure, but this album sounds right.

In some ways, Cost of Living reminds me of two other friends of mine—Sara and Adam Heathcott—who had a band called To Dream of Autumn. I’d label their music “hardcore,” but the message they shared was bigger than any genre. They had a very gentle and caring way of asking their audience, through their live shows and on their albums, to be mindful of their environment. It wasn’t so much “recycle your plastic” as it was, “Look at the neighborhood this loud-ass punk show is being held in. Why are we here in this house; this block; this neighborhood? Pay attention to what’s happening around you.” That feeling is echoed in Cost of Living, just as it was echoed in McAllen, TX, when I saw Downtown Boys perform for the first time. It’s something I feel every day living in Brooklyn and something I see while touring cities around the globe. Love extends itself into places that feel harsh on our ears, like punk—but if you can’t see what’s right in front of you, you might not connect to who is right next to you. I look up to Downtown Boys as people who sincerely know how to express real love through their art, no matter where they are.

Roberto Carlos Lange plays music as Helado Negro. His most recent album, Private Energy, was released by Asthmatic Kitty last year.