“When I was sixteen/I dated a boy/With my own name/It was weird/In the back of his truck/Moaning my name/While trying to fuck.”
The Brooklyn-based girl-boy duo Diet Cig released their new album, “Swear I’m Good,” this past Friday, featuring these opening lyrics in the first track, entitled “Sixteen.”
While falling short of the band’s past hits such as “Harvard” and “Sleep Talk,” the 12 new songs refresh the band’s minimalist soft punk-college-basement style and come at a time of rapidly increasing popularity for members Alex Luciano and Noah Bowman.
The early single release of “Tummy Ache” back in January set the tone for the new album, mixing the Luciano’s slurred punk style with an activist tinge.
“Well, I’m just a kid, a girl, a runt/ And I’m starting to get real sick of/ Trying to find my voice/ Surrounded by all boys.”
The song takes aim at the ubiquity of boy bands in the college music scene. Why does her tummy ache, you may ask? “Cause it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt.”
But beyond the lyrics, the song features conventionally punk-y instrumental elements like heavy thumping slides on guitar and a sultry grunge quality.
Despite the engaging opener and punchy chorus, though, the track ends up coming across as boring. It’s hard to listen to it more than once. Much of the new album shares this problem. The lyrics tend to fall on repeat and the guitar gets so soft that, at times, you can’t really tell what it’s playing. It’s just noise. The song “Road Trip” epitomizes this. After hooking in listeners with the opening lyrics, “Make our way down to Texas/ And eat Tacos everyday for breakfast,” the song just echoes itself, making minute changes here and there, but never engaging in any building or significant shifts in tone.
“Apricots” and “Bath Bomb,” two rare acoustic pieces for the punkers, also eventually run into this crisis of monotony. They sound perfectly fine and incorporate engaging lyrics, but I personally don’t listen to Diet Cig for the Norah Jones aesthetic, which feels incongruous with the rest of the album. (In “Bath Bomb’s” defense, it does redeem itself in the last minute with Bowman diving in on drums and Luciano plugging in an electric.)
Tracks like “Barf Day” and “Sixteen” save the album in the end. These are jams that rival the duo’s gold standard of “Harvard.” In “Barf Day,” a smelly name for a 21st birthday, the song cuts through a variety of rhythms and guitar riffs that all jive into a punky head jammer. What really sets the song apart, though, is how Luciano manages to slide up her voice like a bent E-string.
“Sixteen” has a similar quality, with some subtle banjo added in. There’s something so sweet and captivating about this little country twinge wrapped between the rock bass and guitar. Another engaging part of this track is its authentic narrative. As Luciano mentions in her New York Times interview, the bit about dating someone with the same name is actually based on a true story.
“The opener of the record is me talking about how I dated a guy with the same name in high school, and it was weird having sex,” she says in the interview.
“Blob Zombie” is another highlight, featuring the album’s titular lyrics, “I swear I’m good at this/ I just want to sleep in.” The song takes you into the storybook college basement music scene with a classic drum beat and guitar progressions, everything muffling off the tight walls. The song mostly repeats these lines about not wanting to get out of bed (which might suggest that the lackluster lyrical variety is perhaps intentional and symbolic), but stays engaging by incorporating changes in beat and a catchy chorus.
In their review, Rolling Stone labels this album “a fantastic fuzz-pop debut” which is terrible for several reasons. Not only does it seem to knock the wind out of any of the punk feminism, but also it’s also just a patently bad description. So maybe the word “fuzz” works to describe the amps’ melting distortion. But it completely ignores Bowman hammering on the drums and Luciano’s killer lyrics. And then where the hell is pop coming from? Pop is a drop into the mainstream; something that punk artist pretty much tries to oppose at all costs. You can’t help but feel this frilly label that Rolling Stone gives the band is what Luciano complains about in “Tummy Ache” and throughout the rest of the album. It seems that the more popularity Diet Cig garners, the less focus there is on their edge, what they do differently, and their character.
Regardless of a few doldrums, the album is, in short, a masterpiece of garage punk. What Diet Cig’s triumphs ultimately come down to are their authenticity and perfection of the lo-fi sound. The duo in this classic post-punk have managed to bring a certain warmth to punk without interfering with its rebellious core.