Welcome to the first edition of Difficult Fun! Each month, SPIN will spotlight the best punk on the planet and discuss it here, with the ambition of challenging preconceived notions of what the four-letter word actually means and, ideally, entertaining readers in the process. Purists, piss off! Everyone else, enjoy.
Enough has been written about what punk is and isn’t in the modern era, and to the point of hypocrisy: dead, alive, working-class, college-educated, anarchistic, nihilistic, nonconformist, fashionable, egg, chain, three chords, the truth (suck it, country—but not really, because that can be punk, too). There are no definitive musical histories, anyway, so surely there’s room for some fun and flexibility in the popular conception of the genre. Punk is punk, might as well embrace the chaos before everyone’s records fail to decompose and become maggot food for the most ambitious larvae.
In Difficult Fun—named after a Slits song that is appropriately more reggae-influenced experimentalism than any of the capital-P Punk of their “Typical Girls” era—punk is an exploration of all its subgenres, and maybe some that don’t immediately fit the bill. The term is an evolutionary one, after all, and the artists championed in this space will reflect that. In fact, they already do.
Cowboy Boy, “Pet”
Half a century ago, a proto-punk Iggy Pop sang “I wanna be your dog,” over John Cale’s single, loud, fast piano note—a come on to some unnamed woman, an aggressive and suggestive cry for sexual submission. It is great work, frequently covered, and the kind of classic that probably shouldn’t receive any gender-swapped treatment (the implication, as is the trend in film and TV, is that women aren’t important or interesting enough to receive their own stories and must rely on art canonized by men.) But this is not film, gender isn’t real, and Cowboy Boy’s perversion of the line is not so simplistic. On “Pet,” the L.A.-and-Boston bicoastal band (singer Olivia Maria moved to Los Angeles where their forthcoming Good Girl EP was recorded, guitarist Mike Nevin remained in Massachusetts) want to be “your pet,” with the caveat that it is not “forever,” and, perhaps, could you be so kind to tell Maria why you ghosted her after seeing her naked? (That’s not the reason, but she’s convinced, regressing to age “15, eating half of all my meals.”) Her vocals are bratty and spit-y, with the momentary assuredness that comes from being too irritated to give a damn, an addictive tone punctuated with breathless inhales and gargled lilts. That, partnered with Nevin’s bright power-pop-punk instrumentation, those surfy guitars, makes “Pet” an addictive song about disappointing yourself.
The introductory minute of “Jennifer,” the first off of a forthcoming Flesh Prison Records cassette from NYC blackened punk band Melissa—built of vocalist Jane Pain (Appetite/Safe Word), drummer Maxwell Quinn (Hank Wood & The Hammerheads), bassist Tyler Kane (Hüstler/Children With Dog Feet) and guitarist Anuj Panchal (Conduit), a local supergroup of sorts—descends into hell, enticing the listener to follow. The last three minutes swallow them whole. Instrumentation moves like tempered steel, pressed hot and slowly inserted under the skin. And then: Pain’s throat-annihilating growls, Panchal’s adroit shredding. Can bass curdle blood? For a group with such an innocuous name, “Jennifer” is malevolent. Listen with the lights off.
The Armed, ULTRAPOP LP
Few punk bands become industry darlings—abrasive sounds appeal to a limited, discerning demo—but The Armed has managed to captivate the attention of even the ficklest listeners. And while critical consensus is for chumps, there’s good reason to listen to ULTRAPOP. The elusive (it remains unclear who is in this band, or how even how many people perform in it) Detroit hardcore collective’s third album is dizzying genius, an at-times incomprehensible combination of strenuous feedback, chiptune-like MIDI, math-y shredding, and delicate melodies, just don’t mistake the latter for restraint. The album opens with acerbic power violence, an industrial noise assault for five disorienting seconds, quickly interrupted with seraphic vocal harmonies and twinkly synths. And that’s just track one. Come for the hype, stay for the Dragon Ball Z and Stéphane Breitwieser-influenced “Masunaga Vapors” and the Metal Gear Solid samples of “An Iteration.”
Rata Negra, Una Vida Vulgar LP
Two things can be true at once: London’s La Vida Es Un Mus consistently puts out some of the most inventive punk and hardcore across all its many subgenres, and the best contemporary punk is performed in Spanish. (If you want to fight me on this, you’ll have to buy me a beer first.) Wielding that knowledge, the third LP from Madrid, Spain’s Rata Negra (featuring members of the melodious Juanita y Los Feos and ‘80s punk revivalists La URSS, a band best known in my brain for allegedly bribing Mexican officials to cross the U.S. border to perform at the now-defunct Chaos in Tejas festival) is their best. Una Vida Vulgar is almost obnoxiously catchy punk about the hell of everyday existence (“El Escarmiento”) and falling for a bad boy who is most certainly a criminal (“Desconfía De Ese Chico.”) Who among us, eh?
Qlowski, “A Woman”
In the five years since Italian twee post-punk band Qlowski released their stellar self-titled debut EP, Michele Tellarini (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Cecilia Corapi (keyboards, vocals ), Danny Smartt (bass, clarinet) and Christian Billard (drums, percussions) have only streamlined their ability to play to all of their influences: kiwi pop and propulsive death-rock in equal measure, without succumbing to any overt familiarity. Who knew guitar jangle could sound so furious? On “A Woman,” the first song from their forthcoming debut LP Quale Futuro? (“What Future?” as punk an inquiry as any) on London’s Maple Death Records, Copari’s diaphanous voice mirrors a wistful synth. “A woman like me should be strong enough to let it go, to let it flow. And I tried, I’m trying, and I tried,” she sings, before the rhythm shifts, and so does her volume: louder, deeper, unflappable in its suffering.
Forgive them the name. Remember Sports of Philadelphia, formerly Sports of Ohio—the quartet of singer Carmen Perry, bassist Catherine Dwyer, guitarist Jack Washburn, and drummer Connor Perry—have always been experts in crafting sentimental indie punk, frequently musing from a place of disaffection. On their fourth full-length, Like A Stone, conceptual confusion has morphed into confidence. But don’t worry, the songs are still scrappy and spry and smitten as ever, immediately evidenced in the first track: the bright guitars and tambourine and lost youth of “Pinky Ring,” or the title one, “Like A Stone,” a hooky riff-rocker that doubles as an exorcism of anger. There are even new ornamental pleasures, like on the twangy “Odds Are” (imagine a world where Remember Sports goes full cowpunk!) Forgive the food metaphor, but Like A Stone hits like auditory umami: savory, satiating punky-pop. But don’t blame me, dining is on the mind: on the jubilant 40-seconds of “Coffee Machine,” and at least on the title “Eggs,” though the song references the ovarian kind. There should be more periods in punk, anyway.