Single Mothers - Live in Philadelphia (Cover Artwork)

Single Mothers

Live in Philadelphia (2019)

live show

Voltage Lounge is an excellent place to see a Single Mothers show. The bar’s no-frills, bare-bones, how-is-this-place-actually-open quality provide a snug backdrop for the band’s hardcore tales of surface level dirtbag cruelty. Like “Hell is my Backup Plan?” See if you don’t like it a little more when you feel like you’re living inside the song, here in this brick box with its disgusting bathrooms and sketchy possibilities.

Lead singer Drew Thompson looks the way you think he will. Wild, curly back hair, a thin gold chain hanging beneath an open-throat button down shirt, suit jacket, missing tooth, a sneer that threatens to turn into a smile but never quite gets there. All due respect to the three-piece band accompanying him – an outfit that readily and ably nailed songs from across the band’s three albums – but Thompson is the show. The band opened with “Overdose” and “Marbles” off of their breakout 204 record, Negative Qualities, Thompson playing the textbook front man; bouncing, howling, dipping the mic into the audience, even knocking himself to the ground like a Marx brother.

There’s a level of mystery to Single Mothers music in that I’m never quite sure who the joke is on in any given moment. Thompson’s lyrics are acerbic and druggy, pointing his finger at in all directions at intellectual phonies, romantics, grifters, sweethearts, and even at himself. He’s smart enough to know that it’s all bullshit, and that he is also bullshit, but the degree to which he’s in on the joke – and even what the joke is moment to moment – is murky. That wasn’t solved live, as the sarcasm dripping off Single Mothers music was apparent on stage (applause meters, conducting his band like a – uh – conductor), doled out alongside moments of presumed sincerity and requests for merch purposes.

Outside of trying to solve the band, their performance was a fiercer, nastier version of what’s on their records. The live setting makes it hard to parse Thompson’s lyrics, and it brings the hardcore brutality of a song like “Half-Lit,” “Big Scar” or “Christian Girls” closer to the front. “Hell is my Backup Plan” came without its unplugged coda, sounding better for it (but that line about Okkervil River is aging like yogurt). The band ripped through two new songs in the middle of the set but seemed content to return to Negative Qualities hits when they felt themselves losing the crowd. Closing the set with “Money” gave the performance a nice coda; a moment of almost-sweetness, compared to what had come before. It’s a joy to be punished by people who know how to snap the whip.