Review: Choke Up – Black Coffee, Bad Habits

Straight out of the musical hotbed that is Boston comes Choke Up, four punk rock dudes who ‘love the Weakerthans and King of the Hill’. With a heady mix of emotional hardcore outbursts and pop punk hooks, Black Coffee, Bad Habits fits nicely into the current alternative musical spectrum. At times sounding like a more grown-up Real Friends, at others like a more melodic Gnarworlves, and occasionally like how you imagine Fugazi would have turned out had they formed in the noughties and swapped politics for pizza.

Lyrically the record pretty much sticks to genre conventions of girls, growing up, and giving up on where you’re from (see Robyn’s excellent article ‘The Seven Basic Pop-Punk Songs’ for more on this) but the vocals are the real trump card here, switching from vicious screams one second to hook-drenched harmonies the next. At times sounding like Vinnie Caruana at his most bitter, before drowning in the guttural depths of a Rites Of Spring-esque tirade, and even bearing resemblance to Gerard Way’s stream of consciousness on early MCR, they soar above the nasal fauxmerican offerings of similar pop-punkers. I defy anyone not to furiously fist-pump their way through the screamo rant that concludes ‘My Oh My’… it’s fucking glorious stuff. It’s just a shame that sometimes the guitars struggle to keep up. They’re perfectly played and full of catchy melodies and driving riffs, but I’d personally like a little more feedback, squall, and general punk rock chaos to match the rawness of the vocals.

The record offers a couple of genuine surprises when the band ease up on the distortion and deliver two stunning acoustic tracks. Both ‘Polka Dots’ and ‘Dry Out’ tick all of the emo singer-songwriter boxes with the former’s stomping percussion and latter’s lilting slide guitars lending an authentically alt-country vibe. With confessional lyrics and a fragile vocal delivery, neither would be out of place on a Bright Eyes record. Despite the change of tact, these songs sit perfectly on the grand scheme of the record instead of feeling like the token acoustic offerings that plague the end of many lesser albums. In fact, when taken as a whole, Black Coffee, Bad Habits is beautifully sequenced, with real thought given to the order of tracks and how they flow into each other. Given that these days too many acts drop EP after EP without ever committing to a full-length record, this 14-tracker feels like a real statement of intent. Impressively strong for a debut album, it rewards repeated listens with an admirable variety of styles and never outstays its welcome.

The only criticism that I can really make of this record is that it can be hard to define exactly what makes Choke Up unique. There are a lot of bands peddling this sound at the moment and, although these guys do it so much better than most, they’re going to have to shout pretty loud to stand out in such a crowded scene. While listening to the record, there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve thought ‘this bit sounds like this band’ and ‘that bit sounds like that other band’. Being fortunate enough to grow up during the glory years of third-wave emo, I’ve maybe been spoilt by such reference points, but for the kids of today Choke Up could well be their Movielife or even their Brand New. This band have real potential for progression and if Black Coffee, Bad Habits is their ‘Your New Favourite Weapon’, I can’t wait for their ‘Deja Entendu’!

4 out of 5 high fives!