Though billed as a debut album under their new moniker Drab City, Good Songs For Bad People is actually the sophomore offering by Berlin-based multi-instrumentalist/producers Islamiq Grrrls and oOoOO. The first time around, upon the independent release of Faminine Mystique in 2018, the pair proclaimed their intentions with an accompanying manifesto that, among other things, decried the soul-deadening commodification of art. And with its woozy, off-kilter blend of electronic production, smooth jazz and repurposed musical flotsam like hair metal guitar solos and one-hit pop, Faminine Mystique unfolded like an hour-long dare to artists and listeners alike, a subdued but impassioned call for us to wake up from the stupor of consumerism and re-align with the true purpose of creativity.
Needless to say, Good Songs For Bad People, their Bella Union debut, arrives amid drastically different circumstances. This time around, oOoOO (electronic producer Chris Dexter Greenspan) and Islamiq Grrrls (who goes simply by Asia) restrain their appetite for experimentation in favor of a seemingly straightforward take on retro psychedelic pop with electronic underpinnings. They also present their themes through a personal lens for a decidedly more understated approach that, ironically enough, sets the duo apart once again as more and more artists ramp-up their socio-political rhetoric to keep pace with real-world developments. This is not to say that Drab City are out of step with the mass consciousness shift gaining unprecedented momentum as the world watches, but only that the tone of their message benefits from some temperance.
Good Songs For Bad People opens with an instrumental intro, titled “Entering Drab City,” that captures the melodrama of a mid-20th century film score, with a flute melody playing off a warped but jazz-flavored guitar, as if we’re hearing the music via an aging, moisture-damaged reel of film. “Entering Drab City” functions exactly as its title suggests, providing the mise-en-scène for the aesthetic universe the duo explored on Faminine Mystique. At a minute-and-a-half, the piece ostensibly sets the stage for what’s to come. But when the soft strains of the first proper song, “Working for the Men,” materialize into the frame alongside Asia’s ghostly voice, it’s abundantly clear that Drab City aren’t shying away from straightforward beauty this time.
Asia’s singing certainly didn’t lack dramatic flair before, but on “Working for the Men,” she manages to be more tuneful and commanding by leaps and bounds from the very first breath. “Down by the water,” she sings, almost whispering, “I work for the men / the straying men / They like to hand me a silver penny / and watch me cleaning / and walking the stairs.” Without saying much, Asia conveys an enormously rich subtext of feeling via the song’s implicit narrative of sex work, exploitation and mounting ire. As the song continues, though, Asia also reveals a more playful edge as she gets more blunt. “Soon,” she continues, “they will blow up / They will be dead / no more men.” Without wavering from the same feathery tones from earlier in the song, Asia and Greenspan shift on a dime from an understated study in pathos to an explosion-filled revenge tale worthy of an action flick.
From there, Good Songs For Bad People takes the listener on a virtual tour of similar encounters, most of them fraught with isolated despair, though the degrees of exaggeration vary. The relatively more dance beat-driven “Hand in My Pocket,” for example, closes with Asia revealing that her narrator conceals her hand in her pocket because it’s holding a gun. In contrast, on “Live Free & Die When It’s Cool,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late-’90s Morcheeba album with its drum machine, soul-funk bassline and “ohh-ohh” background vocals, Greenspan deftly captures the alienation of the immigrant experience without being overly explicit, singing, “Your coat is muddy and torn / in a city of gold / Far from where you’re born / your thoughts are smokestacks and brick / With pockets bare your heart is sick.”
In a broad sense, Drab City embody a revolutionary ideal of the role art is supposed to play. Literally, their music represents the revolt of the human spirit against a number of outside elements that conspire to constrain and injure that spirit. Though they’ve tucked their ideals into the music so that they serve the songs, the themes on Good Songs For Bad People are nevertheless as resonant as ever.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. You can find him on Twitter @sabyrk_.