“It was a very focused point of feeling like capitalism is so well-designed to screw over working people to the point that it can get working people on board with screwing over each other,” he says. (Initiative 77 was approved by voters but repealed by the D.C. Council.)
That experience and ones like it inform Bad Moves’ new album, “Untenable.” While the band’s debut, 2018’s “Tell No One,” was about the impact of youth on one’s current self, “Untenable” is about present anxieties both personal and political, whether moments of panic about the state of the world or forward-looking flashes of resolution.
The state of the world during the days when “Untenable” was recorded and its state in the lead-up to its release are obviously very different because of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests against racism. But for the band, the album couldn’t be more well suited for this moment. (This interview was conducted before the police killing of George Floyd that led to nationwide protests.)
“The process of making an album can sometimes seem so long that I tend to worry that maybe it’s not going to be relevant by the time it actually comes out,” guitarist Katie Park says, “but I’m finding every day as the situation unfolds that, no, all those times that we wrote about chaos and feeling like you might not even be able to survive . . . feels very relevant to me now.”
On “Untenable,” the band members — who share vocal duties — sing out their anxieties: being “smothered, Dickensian sucker[s],” witnessing the “genocide of the poor,” fears of nuclear war giving way to fears of death by climate change, and living in a place where “reason hasn’t ruled . . . in a long time.” The pandemic has only exacerbated those problems.
“We’re not just talking about smaller, individual, self-contained issues, but rather about these fault lines that run throughout our entire society and our entire history, so of course they’re going to continue to be exposed as more chaos enters our lives,” Park says. (Park is a former employee of The Washington Post.)
For those on the left side of the political spectrum, “Untenable” is a good title not just for the album but for global capitalism itself. And as an already tenuous social safety net dissolves while the pandemic rages on, it’s an increasingly resonant world view.
“Capitalism is always unstable, always in a situation of cyclical crisis,” bassist Emma Cleveland says. “[The pandemic] really started to shake people that felt they weren’t as shakable.”
That uneasy feeling and unnerving energy permeates the album, not just in its politically charged lyrics, but in the band’s potent power pop.
As on “Tell No One,” Bad Moves excels at three-minute-or-so jams that shine in major keys, full of downstroked riffs, unfussy lead guitar and a locked-in rhythm section; the band is effusive in praise of erstwhile D.C. stalwart Ted Leo, and the influence is clear. Their singalong vocal melodies — with a pass-the-mic style reminiscent of aughts punks Pretty Girls Make Graves — are never weighed down by stuffed-to-the-gills lyrics. But there’s also a post-punk energy this time around. Combs says the early instrumental demos sounded like Krautrock, but with vocals added, sounded like pop.
The band also wanted to find its groove and to be looser this time around. The meticulous and methodical group spent more time jamming than ever, which didn’t come naturally: They had to use a timer. (“The timer was to make sure we didn’t stop jamming,” Combs explains.)
That extra time helped them turn lyrical concepts into sonic realities. Some songs are girded by rhythms that are off-balance and jittery but also insistent and relentless. Drummer Daoud Tyler-Ameen is particularly good at describing what his beats feel like. “Local Radio” has “the pace of anxiously scrolling through a news feed,” while “Working For Free” is “like you took a drum machine and programmed a pretty straightforward beat, but then you kicked the drum machine so that every four bars it glitched out.”
Lyrically and musically, “Untenable” is insistent on its message, which is why the band never considered moving it to the fall, even as plenty of musicians have delayed releases until hopefully brighter days. That approach wouldn’t work for Bad Moves.
“You see it from pop musicians who are putting out optimistic albums,” says Cleveland. “You don’t see it from punk bands who are like, ‘Everything’s f---ed.’ Yup, it’s still f---ed.”
In that way, “Untenable” is perfectly timed for the moment, not that the band finds much joy in that. “If your view of how society functions under capitalism is that it’s a constant crisis, when another crisis happens . . . your outlook then seems very prescient, in a way that’s not really gratifying,” Combs says.
Aside from its farsighted politics, the album also serves as something of a lifeline: 12 tracks of normalcy during unprecedented times, both for the band and its listeners.
“In a paradoxical way, it’s a weird gift to have something to share already in our pocket. I certainly don’t feel like writing music right now,” Tyler-Ameen says.
For him and the band, the album lets them do what they want to be doing. “We are all people that need to perform and share and communicate in order to feel like ourselves, and in the strangest, most roundabout way, we’re lucky to be able to do that.”
In April, when the band released the album’s lead single, the bright and summery “Party With The Kids Who Want To Party With You,” a friend reached out to Park to share his appreciation.
“[Music] helps him think of frames longer than just the present moment: It gives him a sense of certainty about the near future, even if it’s a really small thing,” Park says. “I really believe in that.”