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Review: Encounter Jazz Chords & Subdued Riot On Drab City’s New Trip-Hop Album

Updated: Jan 19, 2021


On Good Songs For Bad People, released today via Bella Union Records, Drab City is playing your local experimental jazz lounge. From around the corner, you hear underwater vocals and a simmering guitar, so you head inside to see the mysterious duo of Asia & Chris. They don’t fit the dress code, but neither do you. The Middle Eastern melodies and distinctive trip-hop beats make you stick around for a drink.

Their set tonight is a run-through of their new full-length record, Good Songs For Bad People, marked by its eclectic instrumentation (aural patience required), warm dissonance, and brilliant instrumental breaks. The guitar emanates like a bending, demented Velvet Underground track, instantly modernized by a trip-hop drum machine.

Asia and Chris first met at the age of seventeen, bonding over their shared love for Charles Mingus, and a songwriting partnership began immediately after. With a D.I.Y aesthetic, the band seems to be another punk or riot grrrl act, but isn’t. Asia dresses punk, yet she sounds like an ambient crooner. Chris is mostly silent, rotating his stool to reach for vibraphones, synths, drum pads, and a flute propped against his laptop.

The songs are aloof, vaguely hawkish, and appropriately heady; they do not rely on usual verse-chorus structures, which would be too overdone. They are angsty, but not abrasive. Instead, tracks like “Another Time” and “Working For The Men” drone with an eerie violence that pivots but never quite erupts.

Drab City focuses on beats - it’s Schrödinger’s album; distinctively hip-hop and not hip-hop. “Hand on My Pocket” and “Devil Doll” are certainly dub breaks, but you hear more than one intra-track influences, from funk beats (“Live Free & Die When It’s Cool”) and nostalgia soul ballads (“Just Me & You”) to non-rhythmic soundscapes (“Another Time”). Keenly aware of how to exploit (and subvert) expectations of genre, Asia & Chris deliver brilliant instrumental breaks that crawl with clever jazz runs, manipulating intonation and musical phrasing to convey an alienated, chaotic mood.

Like underground poetry, Bella Union characterizes their perspective as the “black sheep of the family”. Asia snaps into character with compelling lyricism, juxtaposing grotesque urban nightmares and regal European scenes:

Hair matted and mashed into the sidewalk glue

Grime, spit, snot, olive pits, ashes, spoiled cream

We sleep huddled in the thinnest linens and dream startlingly beautiful stuff

Like ships with eight sails and fifty canons mooring at the quay or even just

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

While you pay your bill, Asia can’t help but talk/sing/whisper French to you at the back of the bar on “Problem," and finishing strong (and sad) with “Standing Where You Left Me,” Drab City snaps from sultry-speak while the bartender flips on the house stereo. This album's pensive and enticing performance leaves you wanting one more song, but Asia and Chris shrug amidst scattered but honest applause.

As they gain traction with this mysterious and under-profiled release, Drab City will surely attract lovers of the lo-fi, emo-femme sounds of indie bands such as Broken Social Scene, Broadcast, and Ivy. Even non-ironic outsiders will still be drawn to their desperate attempt at foolish love, acceptance, and beauty.

While walking home, you dig for your phone and find Drag City’s new release, Good Songs For Bad People. Out today via Bella Union, it’s your lonely and necessary indulgence in an encore.

Photo Courtesy of Bella Union



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