It feels like Diet Cig has been around far too long for Swear I’m Good At This to be their debut album. The New York-based duo released their five-song Over Easy EP—about ten total minutes of music—more than two years ago. Frontwoman/punk sprite Alex Luciano’s earnest teen angst and the EP’s undoctored, authentic sound caught critics’ ears, and the band’s rollicking live show helped them build a sizable fanbase, but the band at that point consisted mostly of potential. In the endless months Diet Cig spent touring and sometimes recording, though, something wonderful happened: Luciano grew up. Swear I’m Good At This is the now-21-year-old’s coming-of-age story, and it’s an engaging one, full of awkward moments, breaking hearts, insecurity and a discovery of power.
The album begins in her past, with the John Hughes-meets-Lena Dunham sex tale of “Sixteen,” about dating a boy who shared her name. “It was weird in the back of his truck,” she sings over sparse guitar chords, “moaning my own name while trying to fuck.” It’s one hell of a memorable opener, a fresh and authentic take on the absurdity and discomfort of teenhood, and the sincerity of Luciano’s vocal performance transports us instantly back into her dirty sneakers. By the next track, “Bite Back,” we’re in New York City, where we spend most of the rest of the album, listening to Luciano try to find her way around her beautiful, chaotic life. “I am so lonely in this big city, and everybody’s so damn busy,” she muses toward the end of the song, the heavily distorted guitar falling out from behind her as she repeats the plaintive refrain a few times.
One of the strengths of Swear is Luciano’s singing, which has improved markedly since Diet Cig last put out new music. She’s developed far more confidence, bringing her voice to the forefront and showcasing emotions beyond the youthful rawness of Over Easy. She is variously angry, melancholic, infatuated, frustrated and wide-eyed. And it shows the most effectively when drummer Noah Bowman lays off the kit and, over quiet guitar chords, Luciano belts out a simple, anthemic line. In fact, the only patently dissatisfying parts of the album come from the somewhat rough mixes of “Link in Bio” and “Leo,” two songs in which the powerful axe-work and frenetic drumming drown out the vocals.
Make no mistake, the ravaging punk jams on the album are mostly quite fulfilling. Diet Cig has built its reputation on Luciano’s unmatched concert energy, and that comes through in the headbanging bliss of tracks like “Blob Zombie” and “Barf Day.” The latter is one of the highlights of Swear, telling the story of Luciano’s shitshow of a 21st birthday that ends with her yearning for the comfort of ice cream. With one foot planted in the mess of the present day, the other planted in innocent desire (not to mention its silly but brutally honest title), “Barf Day” encapsulates the spirit of the entire album.
Perhaps the most interesting state in which we see Luciano is that of heartbreaker, which she takes up on both “Maid of the Mist” and “I Don’t Know Her.” They’re stark departures from the mid-album, acoustic interlude of “Apricots,” a pretty little snapshot of infatuation and the youngest she sounds on the album. “Maid,” in particular, paints a picture of a conflicted Luciano, who moves from consoling all the boys she has to let down easy to dealing with the fear of actually liking one for a change. The song’s outro, featuring pristine, sublime layers of vocals, is another highlight.
But Diet Cig saves its most important message for last, with the feminist anger of “Tummy Ache.” By the end of Swear, we have a complete rendering of Luciano as a fiery, fiercely independent young woman, and “Tummy Ache” is her rage at trying to gain footing in the music world. “My stomach hurts, ‘cause it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt,” she spits over the album’s bombastic ending. And you can understand Luciano’s frustration, because despite Diet Cig’s excellent debut effort here, there are probably some boys out there who won’t take a five-foot-nothing girl with a guitar seriously. Their loss.