Sam Mankinen, Chris Devine, Kevin Devine, Astrid McDonald. Photo by
The debut album on In the Red Records by Southern California punk quartet the Side Eyes raises interesting questions about nature versus nurture — the eternal scientific debate about whether a human being’s personality is predetermined by genetics or whether it’s actually shaped by the environment one grows up in.
The Side Eyes’ lead singer, Astrid McDonald, is a fascinating test case. The 22-year-old Angeleno is the real-wild-child daughter of Go-Go’s guitarist-songwriter Charlotte Caffey and Redd Kross singer-guitarist Jeff McDonald. How much has Astrid’s notoriously fiery onstage presence been influenced by basic heredity and how much was her personality inspired by being raised by two legendary punk-pop icons?
Similarly, how did growing up together as brothers in New Jersey affect the hard-driving musical attack of 22-year-old guitarist Kevin Devine and 20-year-old bassist Chris Devine? Much of rock history has been fueled by the unique familial dynamics and sibling rivalries of brothers in bands, from the Everly Brothers and the Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies to Redd Kross’ Jeff and Steven McDonald. When the two Devines’ aggressive approach is combined with 23-year-old San Diego native Nick Arnold’s remorselessly throttling drumming, the Side Eyes end up as a powerfully controlled punk rock machine that actually blows past the sonic barriers of their past inspirations.
Produced by Steven McDonald, the Side Eyes’ debut album is a collection of 12 short, fast and punchy punk rock anthems. Astrid McDonald is hardly a shrinking violet as she rails about life’s tribulations, spitting out her lyrics with a bratty defiance while still retaining hints of a serenely melodic poise. After drummer Nick Arnold, bassist Chris Devine and guitarist Kevin Devine lay down the ominous metallic intro on the record’s opening track, “I Hate Dates,” Astrid rants about the horrors of modern dating while the rest of the band switches to a brutal hardcore punk tempo.
She’s even more pointed on “Cat Call,” casting a baleful glare at creepy guys who harass her in public. “You think that you can whistle at me,” McDonald intones in a chilling voice. “Just ’cause I’m cute, and I’m walking down the street/I’m not looking to be your doll/I don’t want to hear your stupid cat call!” The band slows down briefly for a sullen hard-rock groove to allow her words to sink in before the song switches back into a liberating blast of pure hardcore anger.
Even with such a rich musical heritage, Astrid McDonald doesn’t really sound much like either of her parents on the new album. Although there are traces of the early Redd Kross’ primal punk rock and the Go-Go’s’ prototypical pop-punk, the Side Eyes tend to play faster and harder than either of those groups, with more of a hardcore pace as Astrid bares her soul with a hell of a lot more raw passion and unfiltered anger.
McDonald is clearly a singer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She turns her withering gaze upon a series of distractions and foolish annoyances, from her various rivals (“Teenage Jerks”) and other assorted losers (“Dead End Boy”) to the perils of formal education (“I Don’t Want to Go to School”).
But McDonald isn’t all about anger. She rhapsodizes over “a man who can who can dress like a chick” on the gender-bent valentine “Guy Chick,” as the rest of the group slams out a surging landslide of distortion. “I feel alive when he looks at me … I want a man who can be a girl,” she screams as Kevin Devine buries her pleas with quick, florid garlands of lead-guitar noise. Kevin Devine teases further with hints of jangling garage-rock guitar on “Please Float Away,” as McDonald’s vocals hover dreamily before the song is swept away in another tide of thick grunge power chords.
The album closes with “Don’t Talk to Me,” a cover song that was released on In the Red Records in 2016 as part of the Side Eyes’ split 7-inch single with Redd Kross, “Songs That Chargo Taught Us.” The seedily disturbing burst was written by Astrid’s mother, Charlotte “Chargo” Caffey, when she was in the late-1970s L.A. punk trio The Eyes, and it’s given a ferocious makeover by The Side Eyes.