Graded on a Curve: Birthday Ass,
Head of the Household

Brooklyn sextet Birthday Ass have described their sound rather broadly as punk rock, although greater specificity comes through the tag of no wave as they zero in even further by introducing the adjective skronky. While their sophomore full-length reinforces these assessments, more impressive is how they bypass expectations through a sharp ensemble sound that’s capped with the distinctive vocal approach of Priya Carlberg, who also composed the nine tracks. Much more than just another slab of neo-no wave, Head of the Household is out April 23 on vinyl (black or purple) and digitally through Ramp Local, and with the option to purchase black undies or boxers emblazoned with the band’s moniker. Saucy!

My initial expectations for this album, which served as my introduction to Birthday Ass (they have a prior set, Baby Syndrome, issued in 2018 with cassettes still available through Erased! Tapes), leaned toward some degree of loose, high-velocity aural splatter, a gush that would rely on the intersection of sustained energy and pure mayhem for its success.

My prediction derived in no small part from what I perceived as the punk prankishness of their chosen name, an understandable presumption on my part but ultimately off-target as Birthday Ass is as sharp as tacks both compositionally and in terms of ensemble heft. Along with Carlberg, the group consists of guitarist Andres Abenante, bassist Dan Raney, drummer Jonathan Starks, trumpeter Alex Quinn, and alto saxophonist Raef Sengupta.

Naturally, those horns will be handling the skronk duties, but on first listen I was struck by a level of musicianship that bypassed the by now standard ruckus-raising honking and bleating, all while maintaining high level of rawness and edge. This all gets established without delay as opener “Blah” dishes spiky art-funkiness that’s as much UK post-punk as NYC no wave.

Admittedly, a big part of the post-punk connection comes through the presence of Carlberg up front, with the sheer range of her repeated delivery of the opening cut’s titular phrase (along with some bona fide lyrics) an immediate delight, particularly her brief immersion into what I’ll call babble-scat. As the track nears its conclusion there is a heave of wild collectivity that points to my original supposition regarding their sound, but this is but one aspect of an attack that’s as tight as it is angular.

“Sunlit Toes” really emphasizes the extremes of Head of the Household’s structural geometry while also spotlighting the jazzy (almost post-boppish, even) unison playing of Quinn and Sengupta. Bursts of horn wiggle doth persist in “Jello,” but the track does more to showcase Birthday Ass’ rock chops, at least until they gradually increase a pace that grows into a thunderous sprint to effectively underscore the band’s background at the New England Conservatory (Carlsberg formed Birthday Ass with her friends from the school).

Quinn’s “solo spot” in “Spiced Twice,” which briefly brings this pummeling (and indeed skronky) track a vibe that’s almost “Alone Again Or,” deepens a relationship to jazz, but it’s important to emphasize that the entirety of the LP was composed by Carlsberg. It’s an impressive feat as the pieces here thrive as much through inspired construction as robust execution.

Please add range to the equation, as “Buckle My Shoe” is considerably less harried, and with an intriguing infusion of found sounds, including an electric saw (distantly recorded to reduce its disruptive potential). This leads into “Plubbage Blubbage,” which stomps and stammers and then sways like a ship in danger of capsizing before taking a momentarily detour down a rabbit hole of prime rhythmic rumble.

“Malai, My Guy” includes a few funky basslines that reassert the UK post-punk connection, and yet the uncut acumen that’s on display as the track progresses reminds me more of Downtown NYC. The horn vigor that spikes the scrappy art-groove of “Broccoli Face” underlines these ties to the avant-garde as the track effectively drives home Carlberg as the guiding force (reminding me a little of Lora Logic in this track; surely the prevalence of saxophone adds to this circumstance).

And then Carlberg shines even brighter in closer “K Helap,” a selection that initially insinuates (or better said, lampoons) a couple possible future avenues of accessibility for Birthday Ass, which the group then promptly decimate and then carry into the (almost free-improv-like) deep weeds. Good for them. Head of the Household is a tidy LP, and if prickly and spastic, its formidable heft flows exceptionally well, the whole standing as a worthy contemporary exponent of no wave and post-punk’s overlapping traditions.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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