Following a string of early singles and back-to-back appearances at SXSW 2016 and SXSW 2017, suburban New York duo Diet Cig released their highly-anticipated debut LP ‘Swear I’m Good at This’ earlier this month. I didn’t catch them in Austin this year, but the brilliant high-energy set I saw them perform at Hype Hotel back in 2016 and the real-life hype that surrounded the band afterward had set a high bar of expectation for the album.
‘Sixteen’ begins the ‘Swear I’m Good at This’ with a classic American coming-of-age tale of teenage sexual activity in the backseat of a car. Alex Luciano immediately imparts a level of irony to the proceedings in the opening verse: “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”. It turns out that this kind of quirky twist is characteristic of Luciano’s writing, showing up intermittently and when you least expect it.
It’s quickly apparent here that lead singer Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman are a sympatico pairing, and the album’s production, handled by Christopher Daly at Salvation Recording Co., makes the most of their sparse guitar-and-percussion song arrangements by diffusing the sounds and adding layers of backing vocals. Recent single ‘Link in Bio’ is a prime example, with one of catchiest melodies on the album and Luciano’s sugary-sweet voice displaying a surprising bit of flexibility.
Unfortunately, that moment of flexibility is fleeting, and though Luciano’s vocals are (thankfully) unmarred by any of the weird affectations female singers often adopt, her tone becomes monotonous very quickly. It’s puncutated by crashes of guitar-and-drum noise between vocal lines, but in comparison to the light pop vocal style, the instrumentation starts to feel ham-fisted before the album is halfway through.
By the time I reached the alliterative sequence of ‘Barf Day’, ‘Bath Bomb’ and ‘Blob Zombie’, I had started to tune out a bit, but Luciano’s lyrics did manage to keep my attention. Released as an early single from the album, ‘Barf Day’ in particular creates another clever juxtaposition, this time between the theme of coming into adulthood and the song’s childish title and repeated lyrics about wanting to “have ice cream on my birthday”.
The album’s central lyrical concept is found in lead single ‘Tummy Ache’, (reviewed here) when Luciano sings her catchy tagline “my stomach hurts / ‘cos it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt”. The album’s press release cites a quote from Nylon magazine as praise for ‘Tummy Ache’: “Vocalist Alex Luciano brings a lighthearted innocence to (‘Tummy Ache’) singing criticisms of the patriarchy in the most charming way”. But in the context of the full album, after 11 tracks of incessant whinging, her “charming criticisms” come across more like passive-aggressive mumbling.
In my opinion, the skirt referenced in the ‘Tummy Ache’ lyrics isn’t as much the problem as the general sonic attitude. I’ve never heard a real punk sound as resignedly whiny as Luciano does throughout ‘Swear I’m Good at This’. Saving this track, and especially this lyric, for the end of the album makes an unexpected, and somewhat disappointing final statement. I expected a lot more vigour and vehemence in Luciano’s feminist rebellion, but that energy never really materialises in the recorded version of these songs, certainly not in the way that it did onstage at SXSW 2016. There’s a lot to like on the album, including some really sharp lyrics, but the fact that Luciano felt the need to make the title statement ‘Swear I’m Good at This’ leaves me doubting her conviction on the subject.
Diet Cig’s first LP ‘Swear I’m Good at This’ is out now on Frenchkiss Records. You can read back on all our past coverage of Diet Cig right through this link.
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