Public Practice, the Brooklyn-based quartet who blends elements of new-wave, punk, funk and ’70s era New York disco in order to create uniquely danceable tracks, have the disadvantage of their reputations preceding them. Ever since the release of their 2018 EP Distance Is a Mirror, they’ve proven their penchant for clever songwriting, instrumental prowess and, especially among New York fans, a live show that entrances so successfully that it’s almost physically impossible not to shake one’s ass. Yet, on Gentle Grip, the band’s debut full-length album, there’s a sense that the formerly embedded scrappiness and punk edge were sacrificed for slicker, more stylish sounds. While the album is successful at crafting smart and danceable music, it lacks the fervor that defined their 2018 EP.
This isn’t to say there aren’t gripping moments of sonic intensity on Gentle Grip that more than satisfy the more frenetic yearnings of Distance Is a Mirror. The opening track, “Moon,” lifts the pulsating, industrial bassline from NYC luminaries Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” that feels forbidden yet sexy and matches it to the foreboding echo and immediate beauty of singer-songwriter Sam York’s lyrics: “No, she does not want to lay down / Looking up she realized / She is the moon.”
There’s also the undeniably punk “How I Like It,” second to last on the album, which guitarist Vince McCellend penned and sings lead vocals on. York’s breathy backing vocals create a break from McCellend’s almost spoken-word tempo, which works excellently to convey a disappointing boredom with idolization: “I was walking down the street / And some kid came up to me / And he said, ‘Man, I wanna be just like you.”
The album falls short at times in the middle, when mid-tempo songs can appear to bleed into each other. The tracklist might have benefited from a single up-tempo rager à la “Bad Girls” from Distance Is a Mirror, but the album’s grip—while gentle as the title suggests—never loses sight of its goal to inspire bodily movement.
This could perhaps be the double-edged sword of having most of the band members moonlight as engineers, as their ear for detail and precision might mean losing some of the sporadic imperfections that would otherwise come from their self-described “cobbled-together” studio space.
“Underneath” and “When I See You” feature all the components of bright, rhythmically enthralling tunes: Bouncy bass, motorik drum beat and funk guitar play off of each other masterfully, but the reliance on this formula almost encourages listeners to turn off their brains and just dance. The lyrics emphasize freeing one’s mind over one’s body—York has something to say about capitalism, womanhood, philosophy and existential probings (“What you can’t see / Roots are taking hold / What’s beneath me? / Fruit but never too sweet,” York lilts on “Underneath,” conveying the underlying banality of societal goals)—so it’s almost frustrating to quell one’s bodily urge to simply move in the presence of a great rhythm in order to be an active listener.
But perhaps this is the paradoxical nature that Public Practice has always set out to play with, challenging listeners to merge mind and body into a vessel capable of the duality of thinking and movement, often cast in rigidly oppositional spaces in everyday life. After all, why can’t the dread of having to partake in a brutal, consumerist society be dealt with through dance? “You don’t want to live a lie / You don’t want to pick a side / You don’t want to compromise,” York sings on “Compromised,” the lead single from the album, between shallow breaths before belting: “You don’t want to live a lie / But it’s easy.”
Much like the cartoon dog that expresses his ease with sipping a cup of coffee as his home burns down around him, we are currently trying to hold it together in the face of absolute mayhem. And why must we prioritize an ethos of comfort, disillusion and inanity over anger, challenge and thought? While Public Practice doesn’t necessarily have the answer, they do have the means to toy with the structures that delineate our understanding of motion and knowledge. You just have to be ready to look for it.
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste and find her on Twitter.