Tacocat-NVM (2014, Hardly Art)
I first found out about the Seattle, WA group Tacocat back in college while trolling an ever-present-in-my-past-and-probably-my-future-too yearly Best Of list on Pitchfork. I was scrounging around for songs I could add to my infamous freshman year study playlist; the song that ended up making the cut was the surf-rock styled “Bridge to Hawaii,” which can be found on NVM. I liked the song, and it had regular rotation on my phone for the next few years, mostly so I could bolster my own concept of indie cred by claiming to be a “fan” of a fairly obscure Riot Grrrl-derived punk band from the Pacific Northwest. I ordered NVM off Amazon on a whim last fall, and accidentally had it shipped to my parents’ house, so I had to wait until Christmas to actually listen to it. Even on the first play through, it felt like an old favorite; the album is like one of the gumballs pictured on its cover: instantly likable and potentially resultant in a sugar high. It has rapidly become one of my favorites, probably in personal record time.
Musically, NVM is one of the most straightforward records you will ever hear. It draws on a long punk tradition of 3- or 4-chord songs featuring guitars, drums, bass, and vocals. There are no flashy guitar solos, elaborate drum fills, or synthesizers to be found. There are several instances of horns, but that’s really the limit in terms of instrumental frills. Think Shonen Knife if the members of Shonen Knife got really into surfing. I can describe NVM this way, but it doesn’t come close to doing the album or the band justice.
What Tacocat (through the voice of lead singer Emily Nokes) does incredibly well is air grievances in a way that not only doesn’t sound like grousing, but also somehow comes off as fun and lighthearted. Their lyrics are consistently clever and funny without being kitschy and help to add levity to the pissed-off sentiments being expressed. Tacocat is like a cartoon band of superheroes fighting the good fight against the insidious forces that come as part and parcel of modern day life. They wage the war on three fronts: the battle against personal ills, the battle against political ills, and the (more subtle, but still present) battle against the ever-encroaching cynicism of adulthood.
Album opener “You Never Came Back,” which sounds like it could be about a dreadlocked white dude who went out to Burning Man only to become a desert person, is legitimately one of my favorite songs ever; I fell in love with its shuffling rhythm and excellent harmonies the minute I first heard it. (Side note: the backing vocals on NVM, often provided by guitarist Eric Randall, are consistently stellar.) After Mr. Never Came Back, other foes that are confronted by the good people of Tacocat include:
- The “Time Pirate” who likes to corner you at parties and ramble about his band and his friends until everyone else has gone home, effectively stealing your night from you,
- The acquaintance who lures you into a “Party Trap” with the promise of fun, only to lead you to a room full of “people [you] don’t wanna see” twisting, shouting, and getting way too drunk.
- The #8 bus in Seattle, which is apparently terrible and always shows up 30 minutes late, despite taking everyone’s “nickels and dimes” all the same
It can be difficult to separate the personal from the political in many cases, and that theme holds true on NVM, especially the songs “Hey Girl” and “Crimson Wave.” The former is an anti-catcalling screed that targets everyone from “drunk hobos” to “business dads” for shouting and leering at the Tacocats as they go about their daily routines. Nokes sounds downright dangerous when she sneers, “Who do you think you are/Yelling at me from your car?/Well come on back here, then/I’m ready to jump in.” While these instances no doubt hit home on a personal level for the band members, they’re part of a broad, societal objectification of women and lack of respect for their dignity. Indeed, our own esteemed president won a general election after bragging on camera about sexual assault. “Hey Girl” punches back against this trend with a colorful cartoon fist. “Crimson Wave” is probably the catchiest (if not the only) surf punk song about menstruation that you’ll ever hear. Nokes dreams of calling in sick to work (it’s ok, because her boss is a jerk), hitting the beach, and “surfin’ the crimson wave” with the help of her friends and copious amounts of white wine and painkillers. The sentiment isn’t inherently political, but in an era where lawmakers in Alabama have basically banned abortion and other states are fixin’ to do the same, a woman singing openly about her reproductive health is a radical act, and would probably send those aforementioned Alabama lawmakers into a collective conniption fit. “This Is Anarchy” skewers angry Bernie-bro types; the dudes with rich parents who throw bricks through windows as a way to vent their personal aggression under the guise of political activism, knowing full well that Daddy’s Trust Fund will bail them out if they’re ever arrested.
Not all is righteously angry in Tacocat land, though, as the foursome fights its final battle in the name of youthful fun. They celebrate a fifteen year-old who rebels against “Jesus, ballgowns, and bouquets” by throwing herself a “Psychedelic Quinceanera” with the help of some illicit substances, marvel at the wonders of those Magic Eye pictures in “Stereogram,” and frolic around a snowbound Seattle, because, as Nokes succinctly puts it on the jubilant album closer “Snow Day,” “Jobs are stupid, so we quit/Cars are stuck, we let them sit.” This youthful, childlike energy is an essential balancing force on an album that trades heavily in annoyance and sometimes downright anger.
Overall, NVM is a perfect pop-punk record, balancing catchy hooks with whip smart lyrics and an overall sense of fun despite some fairly serious subject matter. It’s eminently likable without pandering or pulling punches, winning over listeners through consistently excellent songs delivered in tight, flawless fashion. Do yourself a favor and listen.
Check out more from Tacocat: https://tacocat.bandcamp.com/