[5 June 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor
Attitude is hardly everything for Protomartyr, but as with any punkish band worth its salt, the up-and-coming Detroit quartet has forged its own identity by combining style and substance. While the band’s rabble-rousing indie sound pieces together shards of the Fall, Gang of Four, and Mission of Burma, it’s something more intangible about Protomartyr that prompts you to trace its lineage back to these spiritual forefathers, an agit-rock charisma you either have or you don’t. That’s a quality that Protomartyr certainly possesses on its new effort Under Color of Official Right, a collection of hot-and-bothered post-post-punk songs that convey a world-weary melancholy without ever wallowing in it.
Protomartyr dredges up bad feelings and raw deals just to spit acid-tongued fire at ‘em, which isn’t so hard to read into Under Color of Official Right, considering the place and time of its making. It’s telling, then, that the first words groaned by Joe Casey’s baritone are “Shit goes up / Shit goes down”, articulating an existentialism borne of the Great Recession. Beaten up—but not beaten down—by damned-if-you-do-or-don’t life decisions, Casey airs everyday grievances with a canny eye for detail, yet always with a bigger statement in mind. That street-smart cultural critique hits the hardest on the grumbling “Tarpeian Rock”, on which Casey cultivates his best Mark E. Smith-ish cadence to launch into a litany of hipster caricatures with a sneer worthy of the curmudgeonly Fall frontman, just updated for our post-employment era. Summing up “What democracy looks like”, Casey lets loose as he skewers “gluten fascists”, “smug urban settlers”, “adults dressed as children”, and “do-nothing know-it-alls”.
Yet Protomartyr rarely comes off as misanthropic just for the heck of it, since Casey’s withering ruminations and the band’s vital sound splits the difference between a dark, nihilistic energy and a sense of indignation that’s just righteous enough to mean something. Even when Casey broods on the rumbling “Bad Advice” about getting and giving questionable counsel, there’s a thrashing intensity to the music that makes you feel the song is more about breaking that vicious circle than resigning yourself to being caught up in it. Likewise, the punk psychodrama “Scum, Rise!” may be about a doomed future repeating a bleak past, as Casey’s school-aged protagonist bemoans, “There’s nothing you can do / Nothing you can do” over and again about dealing with his deadbeat dad. And yet, the way Casey delivers his lines makes you think that there’s some solace in just recognizing that life’s chances are on a slippery slope that might just keep you from going too much further down it. Here and throughout the hardscrabble vignettes of Under Color of Official Right, there’s a vigilant tone that belies the words themselves and fortifies what the songs are really about.
That’s underscored musically, since Under Color of Official Right never gets mired in the shit going up and down around it, as Protomartyr deftly mixes things up while mixing it up. It’s not exactly upbeat subject matter, for sure, but there’s a liveliness to the way Protomartyr switches up tones and styles that keeps from dragging you down. So while Protomartyr might be at its most visceral and imposing on bruising punk blasts like the Iceage-y “I Stare at Floors” and the romper “Son of Dis”, it’s the change ups that really grab you, like the way they hit on the precise point where post-punk crosses over with Anglophile alt-pop, as with the tense harmonics of the opener “Maidenhead” and “What the Wall Said”. No matter how dark and overcast the basic mood of the album is, Under Color of Official Right never feels claustrophobic or overbearing, the production opening up just enough to make things expansive, almost majestic in their own way. Overall, there’s a subliminal, subversive catchiness to Under Color of Official Right, most notable on earwormy nuggets “Ain’t So Simple” and “Want Remover”, which, thanks to Greg Ahee’s insinuating guitar lines, have the urban melodicism of the Strokes, just from a less opulent tax bracket and a grittier zip code.
Indeed, it’s Protomartyr’s ability to reach out and connect that makes its glass-half-empty perspective compelling, pissed off in a way that makes sense. That’s never as apparent as it is with the buoyant dance-punk of “Come & See”, as Casey resigns himself to “try to live defeated”, even as he still wants to “come and see the good in everything.” Whether that refrain is about living in post-industrial Detroit more specifically or the general condition of contemporary life, Casey’s words here are ones to live by and an appropriate motto for a band like Protomartyr, for whom fighting the good fight means more because they know there are no guarantees.