Upheaval often produces great music: punk grew out of the global economic slump of the 1970s and in the United Kingdom at least, Margaret Thatcher’s focus on unstitching the social fabric helped channel much of post-punk’s cries for help. But admittedly, apart from the likes of Do Nothing and Dry Cleaning, I’ve yet to hear many new British bands articulate how a post-Brexit landscape is influencing them.
And yet two new New York bands may have closed the debate on how music can bookend the pandemic – or depending on your experience right now, perhaps the worst of it. The Wants’ debut “Container” was released in mid-March 2020, with millions across the world already in lockdown. If the title wasn’t enough to presciently capture the terror of what we didn’t yet properly understand, then the sleeve featured opened cans of food as supermarkets were apocalyptically cleared out of store cupboard essentials. But the Wants’ timing was perfect and terrible: save for a smattering of United States and UK dates before the pandemic brought live music to an abrupt halt, they were denied the opportunity to properly showcase claustrophobic deep cuts like “Ape Trap” from what may sadly prove to be one of the greatest forgotten debuts.
Hopefully, fellow Brooklynites Gustaf won’t suffer the same curse with their own debut, “Audio Drag For Ego Slobs”. Early singles such as “Mind” and “Design” are full of arch observations written for these times: “We know that people get used to terrible things”; and withering judgements: “You hide yourself in someone else and I know”. But barbs like these were never so danceable. The fat baseline of “Best Behavior” coupled with its hypnotic “I’m good, I’m very, very good” have the same bounce as the Happy Mondays’ “Do It Better”, but lead singer Lydia Gammill can’t resist tossing in a waspish “It wasn’t you I betrayed” to spike the mood.
The comparisons with another angular debut by fellow New Yorkers Talking Heads are also immediate and irresistible. But where the former’s “The Book I Read” on Talking Heads ’77 is at least circumspect about romance, Gustaf’s “Book” indignantly asks about a failed relationship: “Show me the Book of things I said.” And while Talking Heads’ David Byrne took three albums to get down on all fours with Fear of Music’s “Animals”, lead singer Lydia Gammill has no such reservations about diving into the gutter and dredging up whatever lurks there amid crunching guitars. There’s seemingly nowhere she won’t go on “Liquid Frown”. “You are the ones who told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. Well, look at me now: I’ve got vomit on the ground, it just crawled from my mouth,” she says.
But like any lead singer worth listening to, Gammill is simultaneously volatile and vulnerable, taut and loose, her spoken word delivery frequently cracking as if aiming for a fragile space between a laugh and a scream. Her sigh at the start of “The Motions” elevates it into an instant classic before the plaintive: “When I ask to breathe you cut me in half.” But instead of help, all she receives in response are sneers and groans; has any band ever been more antithetical to its lead
The only risk with releasing such outstanding early singles is that the finale of the album is in danger of running out of steam. And while percussionist Tarra Thiessen’s ghoulish voice effects are a perfect foil for Gammill on those early singles, they don’t quite fit on album tracks “Dog” and “Package”. Yet it lifts right back up again on closing track “Happy”, with Gammill dropping another pithy gem “I tried to try” against some wistful woodwind. There seems to be a yearning for some sort of rehabilitation after nearly two years that changed the world, but you know with this group the temptation to pick away at the wounds picked up along the way will ultimately prove irresistible.
It may also have been a mistake to omit “Design”, arguably Gustaf’s best song, from the album. But that also suggests we’re getting just a glimpse of what this group is capable of: if Gammill can channel that kind of energy in Gustaf’s videos, imagine what she’s like in front of a crowd. New fans will have a chance to find out when Gustaf’s U.S and European tour begins on October 1, partly supporting Idles, a band who redefined live energy at 2018 SXSW performances, but may now need to look over their shoulders.
“Audio Drag For Ego Slobs” will be released on October 1 on Royal Mountain Records.