Downtown Boys didn’t need Donald Trump as an excuse to make really great punk rock. The Providence, Rhode Island sextet made an auspicious debut in 2012 with a self-titled set of punchy anthems that took aim at the status quo in precisely 20 minutes. They followed that with 2015’s even stronger Full Communism, which found the bilingual punks navigating issues such as racial discrimination and income inequality through saxophone-fueled rave-ups, challenging a corporate, white patriarchy with a series of jaggedly catchy two-minute bursts of sound. It felt urgent, incendiary, important—as the best punk rock often does.
Full Communism was the first Downtown Boys release that found them on the radar of a wider base of listenership, earning the distinction of being “America’s most exciting punk band,” according to Rolling Stone. Their third album and first for Sub Pop, Cost of Living, only reinforces that badge of honor, its 12 tracks presenting their strongest and most ambitious material to date, not to mention some of the most cathartic during this extended period of global chaos and uncertainty. Recorded with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, about as strong a figure in activist-minded punk as you’re likely to find, Cost of Living builds on an already powerful foundation and finds Downtown Boys tapping into a palpable sense of widespread frustration while catalyzing it into a dynamite set of songs.
It’s hard not to be won over immediately with the first track, “A Wall,” a track that pretty directly addresses Trump’s proposed border wall, a symbol of nationalism and division that has already done its share of damage despite having yet to be built. Vocalists Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco unleash some righteous fury in an immediate, abrasively catchy early standout, though that fury comes from a place of empathy and understanding, as can be heard in the line, “And when you see her there, I hope you see yourself.” There’s a similar sense of momentum and frustration to “I’m Enough (I Want More)”, a melodic highlight that finds Ruiz dressing down the passive in times of crisis or urgency: “As if there were a choice…As if there were a proper time.”
At their most intense, Downtown Boys are unstoppable. The Spanish-sung “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” is a firecracker of a song, barreling at full speed while maintaining the melodic core at the heart of all the band’s best songs. Yet it’s frequently not the sheer force but the intricacy in their songwriting that stands out most. “Violent Complicity,” “Tonta” and “It Can’t Wait” are some of the strongest showcases for Joe DeGeorge’s saxophones, an element of the band’s music that has yielded comparisons to the similarly groundbreaking punk pioneers X-Ray Spex. And “Lips That Bite,” the longest track here at four minutes and change, incorporates an ethereal synth drone beneath the heroic new wave melody. It’s the album’s best song, and yet it’s a slight variation on an already strong approach, making it essentially a slightly higher peak among an already lofty range.
Cost of Living maintains a rare balance of being fun and aspiring for something much more than that. All of its 10 proper songs are bursts of infectious energy, though the takeaway is something greater. On “Heroes,” an interlude track toward the end of the album, the band includes a quote from hacktivist Aaron Swartz, a leader in the fight for Internet neutrality who died in 2013: “We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story…They didn’t stop to ask anyone for permission. If we start seeing this as someone else’s responsibility to do this work…well, then next time they might just win. Let’s not let this happen.” It’s both a reminder of activism’s triumphs and a warning about its potential defeat, not to mention a moment of reflection amid a half-hour of righteous punk energy. Eternal vigilance is necessary for a better society; a protest album as good as Cost of Living is as strong as motivational fuel gets.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.