Blame it on the radio, if you think blame should be cast. It was an offhand listen to WFMU one day that made my ears perk up. The band, it turned out, was called The Gotobeds; when I got home, I headed to their Bandcamp page and bought an EP of theirs with the title Fucking in the Future. For Protomartyr, things went down a more conventional route: I’d heard good things about their second album, Under Cover of Official Right; I was sent a press download of it, and liked what I heard. Though it turns out, from reading a recent SPIN piece on the band, that I most likely bought a Tyvek 7” from frontman Joe Casey at SXSW in 2008. World, you are small.
Either way, this is a more roundabout way of getting to my subject than I’d like. Which is to say: there is some damn good postpunk emerging from the Rust Belt right now. Though it also doesn’t hurt that these bands aren’t exactly fresh-faced kids. There’s a certain comfort in the style they’re playing, a sense of assurance. To get more specific, both bands blend a confidence in their own style with a willingness to take lyrical jabs at those who frustrate them–even if some of their listeners might fall into that category.
Something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, watching Alvarius B. play at Union Pool, is the tradition of alienation as an artistic device. Obviously, the boundary-pushing aspect of music can only go so far before it’s simply offensive, but so far, both of these groups land on the near side of that divide. BProtomartyr’s album cover features a snarling Doberman; the first single from The Gotobeds’ new album Poor People Are Revolting opens with the line “New York’s all right if you’re getting your dick sucked.” The title of the song in question is “New York’s Alright (If You Like Sex & Phones),” and it’s both incredibly catchy and more than a little bristling. It’s a point that Doug Mosurock made succinctly in his write-up of the album for NPR:
…the song is a double-edged sword, couching the relative excitement of New York (and hearing all about it from everyone who’s moved there) against the reality of people staring into their cellphones on crowded sidewalks, constantly trying to maintain a standard of living that The Gotobeds can enjoy for next to nothing.
Listening to Poor People Are Revolting in New York, there’s that question: am I being made fun of? And if so: do I like it? And that’s something that you don’t end up getting from punk (or punk-derived) albums these days: a sense of questioning. And maybe that’s inherent to punk: there’s a lasting tension between the sense of community that punk can create and the sense of questioning–questioning everything–that it carries with it. Sometimes that comes with earnestness and dedication and sincerity. Sometimes, it’s sarcasm and satire.
And sometimes, it’s attitude. In the aforementioned recent profile of Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey, David Bevan noted Casey good qualities as well as his flaws–at the time that the article was written, he had ceased drinking as a consequence of an earlier arrest for DUI. Casey himself maintains a self-effacing persona that’s somewhat at odds with the sometimes combative lyrics he sings:
“But this year of not drinking has been pretty good for me, because I was probably drinking too much. That was our early charm: ‘Jesus, this guy’s drunk.’ I get nervous on stage so I had to be pretty poo-poo’d before I could do it. People still think I’m drunk anyway.” Why? I ask him. “Because,” he says. “I look like a drunk: old, fat, and I slur my words.”
There’s a fair amount of grit on Protomartyr’s album, as Casey sings songs that read like character sketches. “Mero said he could walk the city only on hot fry bags cognac bottles and used rubbers,” on “Pagans,” for one. And in “Tarpein Rock,” there are dismissive references to “emotional cripples” and “alt-weekly types,” “adults dressed like children,” and “upper-class slummers,” all as shouts of “Throw them from the rock” emerge from back in the mix. But again: you’re probably likely to find someone meeting that description at a Protomartyr show.
Both bands make solid use of postpunk’s focus on dynamics: there are melodic sections and jarring ones, anthemic choruses and segments that veer into dissonance. But while both bands have those skills in abundance, it’s their attitude that helps to make them memorable. Can some of that be chalked up to both bands hailing from cities that are presently underdogs? (Call it the “No one likes us, we don’t care” effect.) It’s bitter, jarring stuff, delivered with hooks, precision, and more than a little anger. And there’s not a trace of irony to be found.