Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
15 years and a new frontwoman after their last record, NorCal punk outfit Tsunami Bomb has come in hard with their newest, The Spine That Binds. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, sure, but it’s also made the band’s sound grow sharper, harder, angrier and altogether more vital. Losing Emily Whitehurst, aka Agent M, wasn’t necessarily a boon for the group per se; for hipster millennials introduced to Tsunami Bomb during their days in college, Whitehurst was Tsunami Bomb. Her voice crackled with an enthusiastic flicker of incitement, a sound meant to stir listeners whether in a crowded venue or blocking out the world’s buzz with headphones.
Kate Jacobi, Whitehurst’s replacement, is Tsunami Bomb, too, but with a lower end, a touch more husk and force. Her vocals suit the direction The Spine That Binds takes from beginning to end. And as an added bonus, hearing her sing on the record gives the impression that she suits classic Tsunami Bomb, too—her pipes have levels. There’s toughness to Jacobi’s singing, but the outrage she’s so good at projecting belies a gift for generating empathy, too. She might register as badass, but she has vulnerability in her voice as well.
For the time being, the band needs Jacobi’s steel: They’ve written their messages, she has the lyrical urgency to deliver them, and if that offends your purist sensibilities, she doesn’t give a shit. “I’m not asking permission / I don’t need your forgiveness / You don’t define the conditions / Your judgements won’t bring me down,” Jacobi spits on “Naysayers,” The Spine That Binds’ second track. Maybe the audience member who possesses such loyalty to Whitehurst that they’d reject Jacobi out of hand doesn’t actually exist, but punks are notoriously fickle and constitutionally pretentious; should the bands they claim to support dare make a living off their art and earn enough cash to upgrade their production values, those bands inevitably get cancelled.
But Jacobi won’t be cancelled. She’s too damn strong-willed, and besides that, she and the rest of the band are thinking about Tsunami Bomb’s diehards. It’s right there in the text on “Tidal,” the opening track.
“Keep screaming / We hear your call” belts Jacobi in what is quite possibly the best “hi, how ya doin’” a new singer could make on an album where they’re the proverbial new guy: She’s playing the role of Tsunami Bomb’s hype man and giving the listener an immediate sense of what she’s all about. But The Spine That Binds isn’t only about Jacobi, even when it is about Jacobi; in a stroke of clever craftswomanship, the salutations she makes in the record’s early going also function as pleas for action as the songs progress, all the way up to, for instance, “Lullaby for the End Of The World.” How cheery!
The lyrics here don’t lend themselves much to mystery, which is fine; the band gives themselves only two and a half minutes on “Lullaby for the End of the World” to thrash and seethe over the climate crisis, a creeping inevitability that affects everybody but also affects the next generation in particular. “It’s time to show your hand or sit back and fold! / If you want a future, a future where we grow old,” Jacobi snaps. Take your guess who she’s specifically singing to, but also take the chance to reconsider what her statements about asking permission mean when The Spine That Binds ultimately builds up to a call to arms and an incensed rebuke aimed at the people responsible for impending environmental calamity, as well as the people balking at doing anything about it. Just as Jacobi won’t ask anyone’s blessing to lead Tsunami Bomb, so too will she refuse to seek the thumbs up to do something about the slow death of the planet. The multiple applications of her lyrics are frankly profound.
Layering distortion and roaring tempo over Jacobi’s proclamations makes this record memorable, but the way those elements loop around and through its surface politics is a brilliant gesture that arises at the most unexpected times. The Spine That Binds rips as any Tsunami Bomb album should, and after almost a decade and a half of almost-complete radio silence, the speedy precision of their musicianship is welcome. But Jacobi’s edge and personality gives the record value beyond a return to form; she makes it a wicked act of subversion, too.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.