It’s been three years since PAPA released their debut LP Tender Madness; three long years since childhood friends Darren Weiss and Danny Presant married LA-by-way-of-NY punk tendencies with a ravenous need to inject as much funk and soul into their romantically inclined frustrations. Since then, the duo has gone from playing their typical west coast circuit to opening for big names like Florence and the Machine, yet the relatively impressive (though unsurprising) growth in attention has brought with it its own uncertainties. Everything about them has always screamed a DIY, “we make our own shit” attitude, but that’s not just a vain attempt at aesthetics–PAPA started out as haphazard collaboration between friends, and its organic nature has never quite left them. What began as three buddies onstage playing to a bar dotted sparsely with casually curious fans, has evolved–through no small amount of sweat and tears–into a fleshed-out band that consistently fills their shows to the brim with fans so emotionally compromised by their heartfelt tales. Tender Madness might’ve been a blood-boiling catharsis of ramshackle romanticisms, but for all Weiss and Presant’s wild natures, the album was a tamed test of their limits and ferocity.
Leaving behind the moody introspections and subdued indie-Americana of their debut with Kick the Dust, PAPA effectively beat any notion of a sophomore slump into the dirt with a newfound, daring taste for more rowdy combinations of their already infectious rhythmics. On “Hold On,” the album’s rambunctious opening track, Weiss sets the tone for the entire album with his turbulent howls, which zoom wildly between jangly-guitars, the sharp sting of tumbling piano keys, and the lush backing vocals of the ladies of PAPA. With every shouted repetition of the song’s harrowing refrain–“Hold on/To my life–Weiss hammers in the dire implications of not doing so with his drum thrashing. There’s an almost fearful futility to the altruistic nature of the duo’s PSA, but Weiss and company do more than just stand on their soapbox and shout pretentious trigger phrases like “mainstream media” and “corporate brainwashing.” Instead, they opt for more poignantly madcap metaphors like devouring their car radio in series of bass-flogging explosions of fuzz-fused guitars (“Eat My Radio”).
Taking cues from other socially conscious projects (the bluesy melancholy of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible comes to mind) the rapturously melodic “Hush Little Baby” is land-grab of bluesy-rock, punk, and hazy grunge, yet through it all the one consistency is Weiss’ boisterous delivery. “Hush little baby can’t you see/That nothing in America will ever be free,” biting off every cultural criticism with bloody intention, Weiss tumbles down the mole hill of American exceptionalism hands first, tripping over every social and financial anxiety there is on his way down. Neck deep in their belly-burning fury in “Down By Law,” Weiss drops their brilliantly caustic reply to the recent, high-profile string of racial injustices that have colored the media: “You use the cloth of the Star-Spangled Banner as lynching rope.” Never mind that the line delivered occurs against goose-bump riddling guitar plucks and drumming that slugs every word into your psyche; earlier in the song, Weiss mentions putting your hands up “if you dare,” and later more directly comments on “crooked cops” that “protect” him. It’s a curveball of searing emotion, the ripples of which leave behind a nameless anger and disappointment that never really disappear from the album.
Taking that fire running through their veins and releasing it in a fusillade of burnt hammer-ons and ear-clobbering percussiveness, PAPA continues their allegorical dust stomp with refined zeal on their hard-hitting rock dustups “Rain More” and “Private Empire.” Yet, their outward inquest for meaning and human decency always ends up returning inward, and on the groovy inflections of “What Good Is The Night,” Weiss and his ensemble moan and wail their waxing existentialism. “What good is the night, if I can’t make it mine?” he sings against the song’s plunging piano rolls, Presant’s body-shivering bass hits, and with plenty of cowbell. Once again, in their raw, unpolished fashion, PAPA pummels away at our tender vanity, for all the appeal of fame and fortune, what good are they when they deteriorate every virtue and principle that once drove us? You can try running to some idealistic version of your life that is separate from the bleak vainglory that surrounds you, as they attempt on the rustic yearnings of “Lake Life,” but such naivety is childish in nature. “Meet me in our lake life,” Weiss pleads wearily between a thunderous blitz of static guitars and echoed cries, but it’s an impossibility.
In the end, after their tantrum in the mud and muck is finished, the only closure PAPA seems to earn themselves is the resolution to trudge onward. Rejoicing in a newfound jovial companionship, the entirety of Weiss’ ragtag group give shriek after joyful shriek on “Comfort’s a Killer,” as if the dirt they kicked so vigorously had finally offered up some answers. Rollicking forward one final time in an exultant fashion, the frenzy of glittering electrics and twinkling piano keys bolt rashly under Weiss’ arm-flailing drumming and unruly yawps, which glow with almost incredible optimism.
At times coarse and a little jagged around the edges, the appeal of PAPA has always been their genuinely unfiltered pursuit at making a PAPA record — not a hit, not a top ten billboard topper, not an easy-listening radio sugarcoat. Now, more unafraid and confident than ever, Weiss and Present have pulled themselves from out of their humble beginnings and into a new flooded depth of brash certainty towards their art. Boundaries may have been bent on Tender Madness, but they were left unbroken. With Kick the Dust, those boundaries have been shattered and PAPA’s solidarity — a dust kicking, bone gnawing, teeth gnashing protest–rushes forward in a celebratory camaraderie of smoldering faith in, if nothing else, the biting candor of their hot and sweaty poetry and its ability to get our souls stirring.
PAPA perform tonight for night three of their month-long (free) Bootleg Theater residency. It’s their record release party, its gonna go off. Get there early.
Words: Steven Ward
PAPA TOUR DATES
9/9 – LA, CA – Bootleg Theater FREE w/ Maxim Ludwig, Green Gerry, Hit City DJ’s
9/16 – LA, CA – Bootleg Theater FREE w/ Van Williams, Junk
9/29 – London, UK – The Courtyard (w/ Alexandra Savior)
10/17 – Santa Barbara , CA – Soho
10/18 – Santa Cruz, CA – Blue Lagoon
10/19 – San Francisco, CA – The Chapel
10/20 – Sacramento, CA – Blue Lamp
10/23 – Portland, OR – Holocene
10/24 – Seattle, WA – Barboza
10/26 – Visalia – Cellar Door
10/29 – San Diego, CA – The Hideout
10/30 – Santa Ana, CA – The Constellation Room
11/1 – Phoenix, AZ – The Valley Bar
11/2 – Tucson, AZ – Fly Catcher