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Review: Downtown Boys, 'Cost of Living'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Downtown Boys, <em>Cost Of Living.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Downtown Boys, Cost Of Living.

Plenty of albums will try to grab your attention this year, but few will demand it like Cost Of Living. The third full-length by Downtown Boys is a rapturous, incendiary punk record, and the Providence band's first for the inimitable Sub Pop label. While not an unrecognizable departure from 2015's acclaimed Full Communism, the songs on Cost Of Living are a big leap forward in the evolution of one of punk's most revolutionary groups. They also couldn't be more relevant or resonant in today's fraught political environment.

"A Wall" is the album's lead single, and its title makes no bones about calling out President Trump's plan to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Frontwoman Victoria Ruiz and guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco inject the song with righteous ire, along with an appeal for empathy: "And when you see her there / I hope you see yourself."

Musically, the band has pared its sound down to a taut, nervy core, a galloping rush of shout-along chants and barbed-wire guitar. As with previous releases, bursts of brass punctuate the proceedings, but synthesizer also shows up in "Lips That Bite," a growling, aggressive anthem of defiance with an eerily delicate chorus. The band shows its bilingual side on several tracks, including "Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)," a cathartic rager that flirts with tooth-rattling dissonance.

Ruiz and DeFrancesco's voices blend into a force of nature on songs like "Because You" and "Violent Complicity." On the latter, they sing, "The stakes are high / And it can't be just about getting by." That idea of activism as an everyday necessity bleeds into "It Can't Wait" and "I'm Enough (I Want More)," in which Ruiz denounces the luxury of being a passive observer in 2017: "As if it were a choice / As if there were a place to run / As if they heard your voice / As if there were a proper time." Leaping from switchblade riffs to angular hooks with agility, the band pays homage to punks past — X-Ray Spex, The Bags, Los Crudos — while soundtracking a future they hope will come.

Cost Of Living was produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, and he does more then lend the recording a tight, powerful punch. It's as if he's passing the torch, sending off the next generation of impassioned punks to make their own impact. The members of Downtown Boys were already well underway in that regard, and they certainly don't need anyone's stamp of approval — but Cost Of Living nonetheless picks up where Fugazi left off, focusing punk rock through a lens of social justice, art-damaged noise and burning intensity.

That said, Downtown Boys is a band all its own, and Cost Of Living is a cry of resistance — and a celebration of life in all its diversity —that couldn't be more urgent, vibrant or vital.

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