It finally happened: The theater kids have staked their claim on Nineties rock nostalgia. Though the self-described “genre-queer” tunes on PWR BTTM’s debut album are closer to early Fountains of Wayne than, say, any number from Rent, drama definitely takes center stage for the glittery duo, who first met as students and drag performers at Bard College. “I held my breath in a suit and a tie because I didn’t know I could fight back,” drummer Liv Bruce confesses in “Serving Goffman,” adding, “I want to put the whole world in drag, but I’m starting to realize it’s already like that.”
The band’s musings on desire and gender performance betray an academically-trained eye for queer theory, but the analysis is delivered with a healthy dose of humor, not to mention searing guitar solos courtesy of Ben Hopkins. Hopkins takes over the mic (and the Big Muff) on the nihilistic garage ballad “1994,” which turns out to be the highlight of the album. The thrilling music video sees Hopkins’ blue, sparkly lips spliced into the faces of heavily-oiled wrestling heroes like Hulk Hogan, hitting a zenith of gay kitsch.
The long history of gender play in rock music — from David Bowie to My Chemical Romance and beyond — means that a band like PWR BTTM really shouldn’t feel like such an anomaly in 2015. What sets them apart from those famous androgynes is that there’s no alter ego or artistic pretense in their candid admissions of queer insecurity. Perhaps the true novelty of an album like Ugly Cherries isn’t its glam presentation or its commitment to celebrating all things under a rainbow of pride. It’s the heart-bursting sincerity that comes through in Bruce and Hopkins’ eagerness to slather lipstick all over their chins and serenade their fellow weirdos in basements.