Downtown Boys - Downtown Boys [Reissue] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Downtown Boys

Downtown Boys [Reissue] (2013)

One Percent Press

I truly do love and miss my home state of Rhode Island, but in terms of some of the people and artistic works that we’re “known” for, it’s hard to feel a lot of pride. We’re known for people like the Farrelly Brothers, who have brought us such overrated classics as There’s Something About Mary; the television show Family Guy, which takes place in Rhode Island despite its creator being from Connecticut, and which has never been quite as good since it returned from cancellation; and actor James Woods, who recently came out on Twitter as a raging incoherent racist. So I’m extremely happy to see Providence, Rhode Island’s own Downtown Boys become such a buzzworthy band in the punk world. Last year’s release of what most of us thought of as their debut album, Full Communism, made such a splash with its bi-lingual, radically political, and surprisingly fun style. Having a saxophone in their punk band—in more of an X-Ray Spex sort of style than any sort of ska styling—made the songs vibrant and celebratory. Despite being deeply committed to their politics, they very much brand themselves as a party band. It’s a really swinging party, and they squeeze a lot of important knowledge into it along the way.

There are some things about the band that can be off-putting, though, but it becomes very hard to critique them on these points because they feel more like intentional artistic statements than failings on the part of the band. My last girlfriend was Latina, bilingual, feminist, and very intelligent, and I really wanted to sell her on this band, but I just knew what her reaction to them was going to be when I played Full Communism for her. “She’s not even trying to sing.” This is absolutely true; Victoria Ruiz never sings. As a lead vocalist, she primarily shouts, typically staying on one note through every song. It’s not something that you traditionally find in any form of popular or classical music. I reminded my then-girlfriend about her own interest in really difficult to watch films. She’s a huge fan of Eraserhead and bragged about having sat through all of Laura Mulvey’s film Riddles of the Sphinx, a film that is specifically designed to make the viewer want to turn it off to make a complex feminist point that I don’t really have time to get into here. My point was that my ex had a lot of tolerance for off-putting and harsh elements being put into films as an artistic choice, and I had a higher tolerance for that sort of thing in music, which she conceded was a fair point. That’s what some of Downtown Boys’ music becomes at times. I don’t think the band put together an entire album with their lead singer never actually singing without realizing what they were doing. Instead, as the music swings with a wild, fun passion, Ruiz shouts above it like she’s leading a protest march, making clear and concise points loudly and passionately.

But Full Communism was not the first album from Downtown Boys. Rather their self-titled album was the first they recorded, only not with any formal production or distribution method. It was recorded in a basement in Providence and burned to CD-Rs and cassettes they sold at their concerts. Now, with Full Communism making waves in the underground, the band has finally been given a wide release of their debut album through One Percent Press. But if you’re like my ex-girlfriend and Full Communism was a little too harsh and discordant for you, I can assure you that you’ll want to skip this re-release of Downtown Boys. If you’re more like me, though, and can look at discordant, screechy, noisy music as an artistic statement rather than just bad music, then you might be more receptive to this album. You see, compared to Downtown Boys, Full Communism was a straight up pop album. Downtown Boys still has some of that party vibe, but it’s more like if Royal Trux was putting on a party.

The tinny sound quality can be chalked up to the fact that the album wasn’t recorded in a proper studio, creating a guitar sound that is, at times, reminiscent of Operation Ivy’s. But on top of that, Ruiz’s voice often screeches harshly in a way that it never does on Full Communism, as does the saxophone behind her that brings to mind Ornette Coleman’s free jazz style. The highlight of the album comes in “Slumlord Sal,” a song for anyone who’s ever had a terrible landlord in a crappy apartment. Aside from that, the rest of the tracks push the limits of listenability. The Spanish language “Maldito” (a Spanish word that can translate to pretty much any vulgar modifier from “Damned” to “Fucking”) starts out with one of the most bizarre saxophone solos the band has ever featured, and closes out with Ruiz screaming out what sounds like the word “gay” repeatedly. While Full Communism focuses almost exclusively on Ruiz as the lead singer, Downtown Boys features more back and forth vocals between Ruiz and a male vocalist, and in the closing tracks of the album, “No Pity for Boredom” and “Big Cop,” we hear the two voices at times volley back and forth, but ultimately devolving into them shouting over each other, adding to the album’s overall chaos.

While I can appreciate a really discordant album like this, it’s one that I can appreciate with my head, where Full Communism is one that really grabs me by the heartstrings, so I probably won’t find myself returning to listen to Downtown Boys as often as I do Full Communism. Still, Downtown Boys stands as an excellent document of the band before they started to become semi-famous, a fascinating experiment in noise, and a demonstration of the great potential that Downtown Boys have shown from day one.