A punk ethos with a pop core—that, in a nutshell, sums up Artsick, an Oakland-based band that consists of Christina Riley (ex of Burnt Palms) on lead vocals and guitars, Donna McKean (of Lunchbox) on bass, and Mario Hernandez (of Kids on a Crime Spree) on drums. The taut trio lays down snappy, catchy and rough-hewn tunes in a concise manner, serving 11 courses in a mere 27 minutes. It’s a glorious dose of guts-first garage rock, in other words, the kind of thing best played loud. Riley may not possess a powerhouse voice, but it serves her well. You’ll hear yourself, or aspects of yourself, in her lyrics, guaranteed. It’s self-therapy, not salvation, set to song.
On their Bandcamp page, they cite the British ‘70s/‘80s band Dolly Mixture as an influence, which makes sense, and namecheck Vivian Girls and Colleen Green as fellow travelers. To my ears, the Dolly Mixture nod is the most on point. They also remind me to an extent of the Go-Go’s circa their Stiff Records days and Some Girls, Juliana Hatfield’s sometimes group from the ‘00s with Heidi Gluck and Freda Love Smith, not to mention the punky-pop progenitors that were Nikki & the Corvettes.
The album gets off to a great start with “Restless,” which sums up life for many since March 2020: “I’m so restless, medication help me out/or meditation, but I don’t know how/can’t sit still, can’t lie down/can’t sit still, medication knock me out….” “Despise,” a brutal kiss-off that served as the album’s initial single last fall, opens with a fuzzed-up echo of the Go-Go’s before barreling into its raison d’être: “I shouldn’t be surprised/you’re just a waste of my time.”
In some respects, “Look Again” is the other side of the equation, as Riley calls out to a long-lost friend that she pushed away. It has a Stiff Records/Nick Lowe vibe as does the song that follows, “Ghost of Myself,” which finds her lamenting how she feels left out of the bustling world around her.
“Living a Lie” posits that the one who got away is, despite appearances to the contrary, as unhappy as she. “Dealing With Tantrums,” like “Restless,” could well be the theme of the past few years: “I’d do anything to get away/Wake up every morning, it’s the same.” “Stress Bomb,” to my ears, sums up the life under the tinpot despot Trump, though it’s likely about someone closer to home: “You’re a black hole and I’ve had enough/Exhausted with the sight of you.” “Vacant,” on the other hand, pumps up the alienation first broached in “Ghost of Myself,” while “Be OK” targets one possible reason for her feelings: anxiety. “It could be the best day,” she sings, “but I can’t escape my brain.” The album concludes with “Fiction,” in which Riley explores how she projects onto others and overthinks just about everything: “I’m my own obstacle/holding myself back.”
When I first listened to Fingers Crossed, which was released on January 21, I wasn’t sure what to make of it—yet it repeatedly pulled me back to its grooves throughout the week. Part of that, I’m sure, is due to the thematic echoes I mentioned up top: the Go-Go’s, Stiff Records, Some Girls. (Those echoes may be, a la “Fiction,” me projecting my assumptions onto Riley & Co., but I’m okay with that.) The more I listened, in other words, the more I liked. The performances are rough and ragged, so folks who like all their pretty notes in a row will do well to avoid it. For the rest of us, however, it’s a no brainer. Play it once and you’re play it twice, and then three, four and 20 more times.