When alien archaeologists arrive on whatever’s left of Earth to try and figure out what the hell happened, they’ll be lucky to find a smart, funny, relentlessly catchy primary source from and about the year 2016, right before the shit hit the fan: Puff Pieces’ Bland in DC. The album is keen and dryly observed, a new essential in the DC punk lexicon, and the best rock’n’roll LP from a DC group since Ex Hex’s 2014 album Rips.
The title references seminal DC hardcore group Bad Brains’ song “Banned in DC.” It dropped in 1983, when the staunchly anti-capitalist band had literally been banned from many venues in DC, a city soon to become the most violent theater in the crack war and the country’s murder capital. Fast forward to 2016, where the once crime-ridden 14th Street NW has transformed from DC’s red light district into the home of the Red Light cocktail lounge, where the Central Union Mission building has become the Mission Apartments luxury condos.
Bland in DC’s commentary is not a blanket, two-dimensional condemnation of this change; it’s doubtful anyone in Puff Pieces would argue that prostitution is preferable to a bar. But it does raise questions about the displacement and stratification necessary to construct 2016’s new, bland DC. “Ya gotta wonder why?” asks vocalist and bassist Mike Andre on “Y,” whose characters represent today’s urban caste system: Citizen One of the condo-ensconced moneyed/luxury class, Citizen Two, an invisible worker doing “menial work for minimum wage,” and Citizen Three, “somewhere between the One and the Two” trying to make sense of it all. (The band discusses these questions in this excellent interview by Victoria Ruiz.)
But more important than the album’s documentarian leanings is the fact that it’s really damn catchy and funny. Audience members at Puff Pieces’ live shows can’t help but sing along with album opener Wanna No’s call-and-response chorus: “I wanna no / he wants a no!” It’s also an introduction to Puff Pieces’ deceptive musical and lyrical minimalism and larger argument: “some of them want a yes” to materialism (“Object Accumulation”), capitalism (“Money” and “Cash Register”), and classism (the aforementioned :Y,” and “Goths n’ Vandals”), but the songs’ droll journeyman narrator “wants a no!”
Another album highlight, “Wondrous Flowers,” exemplifies Puff Pieces’ deadpan irony. Justin Moyer’s guitar line, reminiscent of “Night on Bald Mountain” on amphetamines, fires over Amanda Huron’s airtight, hyperspeed drumming and Andre’s dissonant-but-jaunty bass. Twice the band lurches into stuttery chaos before Moyer’s shouted “HEY!” whips them back into the song’s onslaught. The joke is that the most frenzied, bursting-at-the-seams song on the record is about pretty flowers in the early summer.
The record concludes with what could be the endpoint of the capitalist machine, built on the foundation of the world’s quashed Citizen Twos: “Women and Men w/ Guns,” in which the streets are filled with armed, booted hordes marching as one. The resonance of this dystopian struggle lies in its immediacy and, gods forbid, plausibility; imagine what a Trump inauguration day would look like.
That won’t stop Puff Pieces from fighting the good fight. On Saturday (4/23) they’re playing their album release show, with the proceeds going to the Latino Economic Development Center. From the show’s Facebook event:
[The group works to] help low-income D.C. tenant associations pay their annual registration fees with the city: banal stuff, yet critical in terms of enabling tenant associations to maintain their official status so they can do things like sue their landlords and buy their buildings and in general exercise collective power.
The show is at La Casa in Mount Pleasant; doors are at 7 with a $5-10 sliding scale and it’s all ages. If you can’t make it, Bland in DC is available on vinyl and for download at puffpieces.bandcamp.com. (The LP is in translucent yellow so it’s definitely going to catch the hundreds of eyes of those alien archaeologists)
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