Back in 2015, just after the release of their first EP, a 20-year-old Alex Luciano was already weary of the label that’d been foisted upon her band Diet Cig. “I hate being categorized as a college band,” she told Noisey. “We have to graduate past it.” Despite Luciano’s distaste for the description, it wasn’t inaccurate. Diet Cig had formed a year earlier at SUNY New Paltz after meeting at a basement show. They played a scrappy brand of lo-fi indie rock that found a natural home on college radio. And their first single, the one that drew national attention, was called, well, “Harvard”.
Five years later, it’s clear that Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman are intent on finally graduating. Their latest, Do You Wonder About Me?, shows that they’re looking to move beyond the sound of their early 20s and into something a bit more serious. “I’ll play the same songs over and over / convince myself I’m grown, I’m older,” Luciano sings on the album opener, “Thriving”. In many ways, that seems to be an organizing principle for the record. Generally, the band’s sound has mostly stayed the same, oscillating between loud pop-punk (“Broken Body”), girl group song structures (“Who Are You?”), and twee, diaristic candor (“Worth the Wait”).
The album’s step forward is its slicker production, which pushes the duo’s naturally trebly sound into something louder and more expansive, with several tracks aided by synth flourishes and subtle piano lines. At times, like on “Staring Into the Sun”, that allows Luciano’s voice to soar on top of Bowman’s propulsive drums and an arpeggiator swelling behind her, pushing the band’s sound far beyond the limitations of their DIY beginnings.
But too often, the heightened production only highlights the album’s lack of depth. “Priority Mail” hints at a deep-seated dread, but ends at 53 seconds before any meaningful exploration of such a loaded topic. Similarly, “Makeout Interlude” and “Night Terrors (Reprise)” would be interesting indulgences on a double-LP, but on a ten song album that’s under 30 minutes long, they feel like undeveloped scraps, placeholders for what might have been more fully-realized finished products.
In attempting to mature, Luciano and Bowman have unfortunately confused seriousness for growth. A big part of what made 2017’s Swear I’m Good at This enjoyable was its emphasis on intentionally dumb fun. While songs like “Barf Day” and “Blob Zombie” featured some unavoidably cringeworthy moments, the minutiae and inside jokes of songs like “Link in Bio” were refreshing because they were sung with a snarky grin and a high-kick; taking the lyrics too seriously was missing the point. But on Do You Wonder About Me?, it sounds as if the more professional in-studio approach rounded off the edges that made the band’s best moments so compelling.
Since their last record, Luciano and Bowman took time off, moved out of New York, and tried to figure out who they were off stage. “We spent a lot of time after the first record growing as people, being humans outside of tour for a little bit, and trying to shed the imposter syndrome,” Luciano said. That’s a good thing: at some point, everybody needs to grow up. Maybe in the next few years, when they’ve had a little more distance from their former selves, they’ll realize there’s more than one way to do it.