Before moving to New York City, all I knew of the world was through pop music and passed-along wisdom from those who had lived there. I had attended an art school outside of the city limits in Westchester County, and was always enamored by city natives with impeccable style and self-assuredness in their tastes in music, film and things like “conceptual art.” Whatever that is. After graduating, its luring gravity pulled me in like many gullible post-grads over the last century or so. But one piece of advice from my pre-teen diet of alternative-rock radio stuck with me on this journey: “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you too hard.” I first heard that old cliche from Baz Luhrmann’s commencement speech turned Sprechstimme oddball hit “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” and never forgot it in the 13 years I lived in Brooklyn. New York City can be both a nurturing ecosystem for those equipped to handle its pace, and a cruel disciplinarian when it needs to humble those who ought to remember its complicated history. On their new album Broken Equipment, Brooklyn art-rock party starters BODEGA take a hard look at these unmovable truths, and fashion a set of razor-sharp dance-punk songs for their priced-out and displaced neighbors.
With their 2018 full-length debut Endless Scroll and their 2019 EP Shiny New Model, co-songwriters “Bodega” Ben Hozie and Nikki Belfiglio make no illusions that the alleyways and galleries handing out free PBRs in which their songs dwell are mostly contained within the five boroughs. Hell, even their name, although a universal concept, is pulled from the often taken for granted corner delis that anchor most NYC neighborhoods. But as any episode of Seinfeld proves that New York frustrations are the world’s frustrations, BODEGA have chosen to double down on their “write locally, reach globally” ethos on Broken Equipment.
In the first seconds of the album, it’s immediately noticeable that any grime that had clung onto their scrappy earlier releases has been sanded off this time around. The album was recorded by Hozie and the band’s front of house sound mixer Bobby Lewis, capturing the group at peak frenetic performance. With the help of Bryce Goggins, the tunes were mixed in a way that doesn’t sanitize their sound, which can at times evoke a crusty gang of buskers playing the Pylon songbook. Throughout the album, the fatter-than-brick basslines, dry drums, thick slabs of distorted guitars and direct treatment of the vocals make BODEGA feel like ambassadors between DFA Records and Epitaph Records.
On the opener “Thrown,” Belfiglio announces the track by name-checking the braggadocious airing of excesses by Jay-Z and Kanye West. But as Hozie unspools the song’s narrative in his punchy staccato phrasing, you realize which of the “Thrown” you need to keep an eye on. “I was thrown not here by chance,” Hozie laments as he lists the constant obstacles humanity has to clear to get by. “None of this appeared by chance,” he affirms, with hands raised in the shrug position. On the next track, “Doers,” he and Belfiglio tag-team the lyrics of the tongue-in-cheek rise-and-grind anthem for the NYC young professional Run DMC-style, shouting out the city’s “doers, movers, shakers and night connoisseurs.” When Hozie lists off the various 10-minute increments that he needs to plan in a day between TED Talks and Bandcamp discoveries, he repurposes the famous Daft Punk mantra, saying the hustle makes him “bitter, harder, fatter, stressed out.”
While it’s possible James Murphy introduced the members of BODEGA to the French dance floor innovators, the group pull in other interesting post-punk influences outside of those listed in “Losing My Edge.” While there is a fair share of danceable downtown New York art rock like Bush Tetras and ESG in their DNA, when the band switches gears to full-throated punk singalong on songs like the Belfiglio-sung “Statuette On the Console” or “How Can I Help YA,” you can hear the earnest rock-and-roll lifer energy of groups like The Mekons or Camper Van Beethoven triumphantly shining through.
On the album’s most sobering moment, “NYC (Disambiguation),” Hozie subtly addresses the rapidly moving corporate takeover of some of New York’s most vibrant neighborhoods by explaining that this is just business as usual. By going through its history of being first colonized by protestants who worshiped “beaver pelts and sugar” while sending native Americans to their graves to the advances of the Industrial Revolution and so forth, he explains over a pulsating beat that “New York was founded by corporation.” It’s a compact, bullet-point history lesson catchy enough to be animated for children’s programming.
Hozie goes full campfire troubadour on the album’s final track, the sweet, acoustic “After Jane.” He paints the story of a relationship that burned too fast to tend to. While it’s unclear what went on between Hozie and Jane before she “disappeared,” her pain was passed on to him in her absence. “The more that I live the more I do wrong, I channel your hurt when I sing my songs,” he sings as he reflects on her taking an “ocean of pills” in her empty apartment.
Other cities may claim to be full of “brotherly love,” but on Broken Equipment, BODEGA don’t sugar-coat the intoxicating feeling New York can create when it gets into your blood. If you can survive the constant rent hikes, shady practices from shifty landlords, collapsing infrastructure, and a cyclical reshuffling of artistic epicenters and neighborhood fixtures, it’s an adrenaline high worth building a life around. This one’s for the ones able to hang on.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.