Like Mission of Burma or Minor Threat, Bush Tetras are a band whose influence vastly exceeds the quantity of their initial output. They shaped the no wave scene of the early 1980s, made Thurston Moore envious, and scored an unlikely underground hit with a twitchy and radical panic attack called “Too Many Creeps.” Yet they never released a proper album until 1997’s Beauty Lies. Such a late-blooming trajectory instills each successive album with unusual weight: They’re not making music out of any sense of obligation, but because they still have something to say.
Even in 2023—as their influence reaches a new generation of talky post-punk upstarts—Bush Tetras are still writing their legacy. The underground New York band was fêted with a career-spanning box set in 2021, but a month before its release, longtime drummer Dee Pop died at 65. Eventually, the surviving musicians recruited former Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan and ex-Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley to flesh out the lineup. Aiming to honor Pop’s memory, they completed They Live in My Head, their first album in over a decade, with Shelley also serving as producer.
The mood is somber yet defiant. Stormy waves of distortion bring a spectral air to “Ghosts of People,” a brooding reflection on the band’s early days in downtown New York. Lead singer Cynthia Sley summons “Ghosts of people/I used to know/Hairdos made at home,” but these fragmented glimpses of youth don’t stave off mortality: “Crave more time/Get nothing done!” Sley repeats at the climax, aware that punk survival is inextricably linked with grief.
“Tout Est Meilleur” goes for careening, blues-addled punk, with Sley yearning in French for community and connection amid lockdown. The other standout, “Things I Put Together,” makes cryptic reference to some crisis or health scare. “They said I wasn’t worthy/Ever, no never,” Sley wails as Pat Place’s wandering guitar squalls push toward redemption. The track resembles a soulful spin on late-era Sonic Youth.
Inspired as they were by Bush Tetras, Sonic Youth were not a particularly groove-driven band, and They Live in My Head does not attempt to replicate the spiky funk backbeat of Bush Tetras’s ’80s classics. The sound is thicker, heavier; a sludgy post-punk roar consumes tracks like “I Am Not a Member” and “Bird on a Wire” (not the Leonard Cohen one). Sley sings where she once chanted and yelped, her lyrics more reflective than surreal. “Rest assured, there will be no peace/Until I render myself complete,” she declares during the roiling closer, “The End.”
If They Live in My Head lacks the woozy danceability of vintage Tetras, it doesn’t skimp on the political bite. But the most topical song, “2020 Vision,” doesn’t quite transcend the corniness of its title, hinging on vague platitudes (“Looking back on 2020/All I know it’s been a journey”) and references to mansplaining. On songs like this, these punk legends could easily be mistaken for some buzzy new group of no wave-inspired 27-year-olds. That doesn’t mean that Bush Tetras have fallen behind—just that the rest of the punk scene is finally starting to catch up.
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