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New Bloods

The Secret Life

(Kill Rock Stars; US: 8 Apr 2008; UK: 7 Apr 2008)

Portland’s New Bloods are an all-female, all-queer, two-thirds black band that play danceable punk without the aid of a guitar. None of these traits are novelties per se, but when put together they give the band a uniqueness that would make any adventurous music fan take notice. When the New Bloods were an unsigned band with only a seven-inch to their credit, I thought to myself, “This is the kind of band that Kill Rock Stars would go crazy over.”  I was proven right when the legendary label signed them last summer. Fortunately, the band’s music is just as interesting as its demographics, and its debut album, The Secret Life, shows staggering promise.


The Secret Life‘s cover is a collage constructed from old photos of various unnamed people. Although most of them are black women, it’s telling that people of multiple races and genders are represented in the collage. Although their lyrics borrow liberally from Haitian writers (“Behind Mountains” is based on an Edwidge Danticat novel) and Jamaican reggae groups (“Day After Day” rewrites an Earth and Stone song), the band’s Pan-African outlook is never explicitly addressed in their lyrics. Only two of the album’s 11 songs employ gender-specific pronouns. However, the New Bloods cannot be accused of dodging race or gender issues in their music. (It’s shortsighted to think that the band’s demographics obligate them to address these issues in the first place.)  Rather, they seem to emphasize commonality. On the opening title track, they sing, “Why you won’t believe in me? / I need warmth next to my skin / I keep it in”. Many people live their lives in secret, suppressing their deepest desires and emotions to avoid the rejection and persecution of others. It’s not a concept that one has to be black, queer, or female to understand—though it certainly helps.


Musically, the New Bloods’ closest reference point would be the Raincoats: their flat, throaty vocal interplay recalls that of Gina Birch and Ana de Silva; violinist Osa can make just as scratchy a racket as Vicky Aspinall; and drummer Adee’s rhythms are just as tumbling and tom-tom-heavy as Palmolive’s. However, the New Bloods are much tighter musicians than the Raincoats ever were. Their ability to handle brisk tempos (“Close Your Eyes” is a particularly propulsive highlight) and jarring rhythmic changes puts their music a bit closer to that of the dearly departed Intima, another Portland-based violin-driven punk band. The New Bloods are also much better singers: I don’t think the Raincoats could’ve pulled off an a capella track as gorgeous as “Day After Day”.


This brings me to The Secret Life‘s only real flaw: the New Bloods don’t utilize their singing voices enough. A third of the album’s songs are marred by spoken vocals that lack intonation and charisma, and work against the richly melodic music underneath them. This flat Sprechstimme sounds good only on “Tree”, a charming story-song about a restless branch that longs to break free from the tree it’s attached to. That exception aside, the New Bloods’ music is much better when they sing than it is when they speak. Although I’m not entirely satisfied with The Secret Life, there are enough brilliant songs on it to keep my interest piqued for whatever the New Bloods do next.

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