Tag Archives: Laura Jane Grace

Against Me! – New Wave

Against Me - New Wave album cover10 years ago as I write this Floridian punk rockers Against Me! released an album that was, for better or worse, to become a landmark one in their career, New Wave.

Following something of a falling out with indie label Fat Wreck Chords over their Searching For A Former Clarity record the band signed a deal with a major label, Sire, for their fourth (and then fifth) albums.

This instantly set them apart not only from the anarcho-punk scene they originally came from (though to many there even Fat Wreck had been too big a move) but also from their fans who had followed the band’s first three albums to whom a major label was seen as a hugely controversial move.

The whys and wherefores of all of this (from at least one perspective) are covered in Laura Jane Grace’s autobiography, Tranny, so here I’m going to focus more on the record itself.

From the moment it begins its clear that New Wave has a bigger production side to it, and with Butch Vig behind the desk that’s not a surprise. What it does though right away is hint at the difference between the outlook of the band and the plans of the Sire executives.

Against Me! circa 2007

Against Me! circa 2007

While the band, led by chief songwriter Grace (then known as Thomas Gabel), kept at least a semblance of their sociopolitical outlook, they had added to that an embittered streak focussing on the aforementioned punk ideals, the notion of ‘selling out’ and the criticisms they had gained from longstanding fans, there’s a strong sense that what Sire were looking for was the next generation of Foo Fighters.

While this gives the whole record something of a conflicted edge the dangerous side of the music gets lost in the deeper production, stifling what could have been a very impressive set of songs highlighting the ever-present clash between art and commerce. Title track New Wave, Up The Cuts and the supremely catchy Stop! particularly vocalise this, but it is a theme bubbling under throughout.

Politics remains a strong aspect of the lyrics, possibly in a slightly more abstract sense than in the past, but White People For Peace and Americans Abroad both have political overtones with the first dealing with war and protest singers and the second feeling like a very aware look at global Americanisation from the point of view of the band on tour.

Against Me! live 2007

Against Me! live in 2007

What all this suggests is that there are some good songs on the record and, in many ways it does continue where Searching… had left off two years previously, with the band developing a slightly poppier and more accessible tone while still having plenty to say, it’s just this came across far better with a slightly less ‘over produced’ sound.

That said a couple of tracks really stand out. The first is Thrash Unreal, the album’s second single, that takes the kind of topics often dealt with in teen pop punk but throws them askance issuing something of a warning of increasingly youthful excess but finally standing up as a celebration of teenage rebellion (with a very dark edge).

The other stand out track is the albums closer, The Ocean, that uses the advanced production for all its worth to create a deep and atmospheric piece that delves deeper than ever before into the Grace’s psyche and feelings in a way that has since become something of a premonition for not just the future of the band but her personal life as well (loosely anyway).

Thomas Gabel/Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! in 2007

Gabel/Grace live in 2007

This all leaves New Wave as something of a transitional record in Against Me!’s career, lacking some of the danger of the past and hinting at a possible more ‘corporate rock’ future that never really emerged (thankfully).

The follow-up, White Crosses, while also featuring some great songs also felt somewhat disconnected and eventually almost led to the collapse of the band before their next landmark moment on Transgender Dysphoria Blues that saw them take many aspects of what they were before but become something new and certainly become about as far removed from being the next Foo Fighters as a band could get while still playing pop-tinged punk rock.

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Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi

Tranny Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace and Dan Ozzi book coverIn May 2012 Laura Jane Grace came out to the world as transgender via an interview in Rolling Stone magazine. At that point her band, Against Me!, had been going through a lot of transition themselves and this marked something of a watershed moment, not just for Grace herself, but for the band.

In her autobiography, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (written with Dan Ozzi) Grace explores her life and career up to this point in startling honest fashion.

The book starts in 1985 with Grace (then known as Thomas James Gabel) seeing Madonna on TV and the wheels are set in motion for her life both in terms of her personal development and her musical ambitions – of course stylistically, the music at least would go in somewhat of a different direction.

I won’t go into detail of her story, this would be the autobiographical equivalent of spoilers, but it follows a natural chronology starting with her life as child of a military family regularly moving from place to place and never forming solid foundations, something that comes into play as she moves into being a touring musician.

Laura Jane Grace

Laura Jane Grace

As the title of the book suggests the story has two main threads that Grace weaves together seamlessly. Each chapter loosely follows a section of her career based around an album or tour, especially once we get to the point to the point of Against Me! releasing their debut album, …Reinventing Axl Rose.

This is a fairly standard conceit and obviously makes logical sense for a musicians memoir, but, what lifts it beyond that is the combination of newly written passages and sections lifted from Grace’s extensive journals.

What this does is extraordinary as we get the view of Grace now, with not only hindsight but an almost entirely changed life, and the in the moment thoughts and views of Gabel at the time.

While the view taken rarely changes it gives the book a duality that only serves to hammer home the experiences of Grace’s dysphoria that, it is evident, were present from her early youth (certainly at least since seeing that Madonna performance).

Against Me! circa 2013

Against Me! circa 2013

These journals are fascinating as its clear Grace documented everything, really putting the reader in the moment with her at many key moments both for herself and Against Me!.

This makes for a very intense and personal experience, like we are a fly on the wall, or even closer than that. With that we share many nights with her on the bench seats of vans or bunks of tour busses, as well as the back of a police car or two, in a way I’ve never read in any other musician’s life story.

As a fan of Grace’s music I did wonder if her personal story would take preference but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t as it is clear throughout just how inextricably linked these two things are, more than comes across in many other such stories. That said the most fascinating stuff comes with her personal story and quite how she came to terms with her gender dysphoria and how she dealt with it (or didn’t) at different stages of her life.

Grace as Gabel

Grace as Gabel

It never paints transitioning or anything associated with it as a quick fix or an easy process as some flippant reporting of such has, both in relation to her and others. In this it does a great job of expressing the feelings she felt and what she went through that, as a cis-male, was one of the most valuable insights I’ve had into this.

The story of the band is one we’ve heard many times before with members falling out, life on the road extremes and just what its like to support metallers Mastodon on tour when you’re in a band playing punk rock.

But with this we get a look into the American punk scene from the late 1990s to the late 2000s. While this view is obviously that of Grace herself, it is fascinating to see the DIY end of things and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the mainstream world of pop-punk and what comes between.

This just adds fuel to Grace’s resilient fire as she faces off against former fans who now brand her and the band sellouts and how some came back round as this part of her story neared its end.

The final chapter and epilogue of the book change things up as Gabel’s journals are no more and we get pure Grace, rounding off her story in suitably open-ended but still satisfying fashion (for now) as we find out about the writing and recording of the Transgender Dysphoria Blues album and the reconstruction of Against Me! as, arguably, even more of a potent force than they ever were before and certainly a more focussed one.

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard) of Against Me!

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard)

All this makes Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout not just one of the most satisfying autobiographies but one of the most satisfying books I’ve read.

Like much of Grace’s music its fast, raw and honest while provoking thought and opening up a wider world of experience than most other does not and, given the subjects it deals with, it offers an invaluable and important insight into something not everyone will experience but everyone should be able to at least try to understand all in a very personal way.

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Against Me!, Milk Teeth and Mobina Galore – Electric Ballroom, Camden – 08/12/16

Against Me!

Against Me!

Heading into Camden’s famed Electric Ballroom venue on a surprisingly mild December evening it was clear that the night’s headliners, Floridian punk rockers Against Me!, had brought a sense of occasion with them.

Snaking down Camden High Street from the venue’s doors, waiting for them to open, was one of the most diverse crowds I’ve seen for a show all clearly attracted by the message of inclusivity the band have been championing for, at least, their last two albums but in less specific ways their whole career.

This idea of inclusivity was reflected in the supporting line up. It sounds like something that shouldn’t need commenting on but, as this was, I think, the first time it’s happened at a gig I’ve attended, all three bands were at least female fronted but in each case this was far from their defining factor.

Winnipeg duo Mobina Galore kicked off proceedings with a wall of grunge punk noise that combined the fuzz sound of Nirvana-era Seattle with the heavier end of The Offspring’s brand of pop-punk.

Mobina Galore

Mobina Galore

Jenna and Marcia were instantly captivating thanks to the sheer power of their sound, the fact there were two and not at least four people on stage was never sonically noticeable, bringing to mind the likes of The Hyena Kill and Science of Eight Limbs in different ways

This, combined with the way they worked together and obviously fed off one another’s energy, created something that got the already big and still growing audience nicely warmed up.

Had the set gone on any longer I worried their sound may have become a bit repetitive but for a raging half hour Mobina Galore were powerful and absorbing from start to finish.

It was obvious from their reception that Stroud based quartet, Milk Teeth, brought quite a following with them and as they launched in Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation before segueing into their own material that quickly gained more.

The band’s sound was rooted in pop punk but they weren’t scared to venture into heavier territory and it was when they merged the two that they hit their best moments.

Milk Teeth

Milk Teeth

Becky Blomfield was a constant focus with powerful vocals along with a great line in high kicks and bass playing while Billy Hutton, celebrating a year on guitar with the band, acted as a great counterpoint.

Highlights of the set came with Swear Jar and a very nice slower number from Blomfield that was the first moment of the audience consciously coming together in support of a band’s explicit lyrical sentiments – though plenty more such moments were still to come.

With a nice little speech from Hutton continuing this, Milk Teeth delivered a brilliantly uncynical performance that, judging by the audience response at the end of the set, saw them win over many new fans to their diverse punk rock sound.

As a banner revealing a pair of black and white, Rocky Horror-eque, lips was revealed and Against Me! hit the stage the now packed crowd in the sold out Electric Ballroom pushed forward and the level of excitement surpassed possibly any show I’ve ever attended.

Against Me!

Against Me!

Launching into True Trans Soul Rebel before a surprisingly powerful 333 and then Haunting, Haunted, Haunts the band matched this excellently and proceeded to ride a wave of energy with the audience for the next 90 minutes spanning their entire career, balancing older material with a focus on songs from new album Shape Shift With Me.

Despite the fact some of the subjects dealt with in Laura Jane Grace’s lyrics can be on the dark side their delivery camet with a positive attitude and a huge, infectious smile, throughout, with Dead Friends, White Crosses and Delicate, Petite and Things I’ll Never Be highlights of the first part of the set in this regard as the audience sang virtually every word back at the band, at times almost out doing the PA.

While the first half of the set would have made this a stand out show in anyone’s book something changed to elevate it even further when, in the introduction to Bamboo Bones, Grace made a comment that, while she is an atheist she got the impression that the energy she feels performing is the equivalent to that the evangelical claim to feel in church.

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard) of Against Me!

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard)

This seemed to strike a particular chord with the audience, myself more than included, as we shouted back the words ‘What god doesn’t give to you, you have to go and take for yourself’ with an astonishing conviction and invoking a sense of a ‘punk rock revival meeting spiritual’ which continued for the rest of the night.

From there through Boyfriend, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I Was A Teenage Anarchist and an almost overwhelming Black Me Out, Against Me! took this further elevated energy and converted it into something truly life affirming and poignant on both a personal and social level.

Throughout the set all four members of the band were astonishing. Grace and guitarist James Bowman (the other long-standing member) clearly have a telepathic connection on stage. Inge Johansson (who joined in 2013) looked like Johnny Ramone picked up a bass and got a whole hell of a lot happier while being an energetic powerhouse and clearly having a powerful connection with Grace while Atom Willard (also in the band since 2013) was mesmerising behind the drums, truly thundering and powering the band’s folk-tinged punk rock.

Inge Johansson of Against Me!

Inge Johansson

As the audience called for more Grace headed back onto stage alone and, as well as a customary thanks to the crowd, made the point that playing in the UK means she can be pretty sure she’s not playing for anyone who voted for Trump, before delivering a particularly poignant solo version of Baby I’m An Anarchist from the band’s debut, again with full crowd vocal backing.

With the rest of the band back FuckMyLife666 and a particularly rousing Sink, Florida, Sink closed the show with the audience a sweaty, moshed up mess but still calling for more even as the house lights came up and the backing music returned.

Only beginning to disperse once Grace returned to the stage to distribute some guitar picks brought to a close one of the best night’s I’ve spent in a music venue anywhere (this may be up with the Rancid gig at Brixton in 2006 I have bored my friends about) and re-confirming a sense of punk rock (and live music in general) as not just a genre but a feeling, a lifestyle and a place that is genuinely accepting and life-affirmingly positive in an entirely uncynical way.

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Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me

Against Me! - Shape Shift With Me coverTwo and a half years ago Against Me! launched back onto the international punk scene with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, an album that marked something of a change for the band in many ways. Now, following a live album chronicling the blistering shows they performed in support of that record, they are back with a new full length studio album, Shape Shift With Me.

If Transgender Dysphoria Blues was a direct response to the changes being undergone by both the band and their front woman Laura Jane Grace at the time, Shape Shift With Me builds on this in a way that takes that personally visceral approach and augments it with the hints of pop that had marked White Crosses to create something of a hybrid moving the band forward into what feels like a new era.

Provision L-3 starts the album off in with short, sharp, punk package railing against the changes in politics in the USA (and beyond) in recent years intermingled with the same issues personal to Grace that were the hallmark of the previous record grabbing you by the throat to drag you into the album.

Against Me!

Johansson, Bowman, Grace, Willard

From there it weaves it way through the personal and political, with the two intertwining as the band have always done at their best, it just seems to have an understandable new charge and poignancy.

While all still punk the record shifts stylistically throughout taking in both new and familiar sounds. Haunting, Haunted, Haunts brings the folk punk tinge that made their name to the fore while Dead Rats and Norse Truth add a darker, fuzzier vibe to proceedings and, one of two lead singles, Crash comes with an almost glam-pop vibe that is as astonishing as it is infectious.

While this makes it a stylistic mix, Shape Shift With Me flows together excellently with a general sense of a search for intimacy pervading the record which rings true with much of Grace’s media presence in recent months, but this is far from the Laura Jane Grace show as Transgender Dysphoria Blues, maybe, was. Added to this, the continued use of a more stripped back production style and striking artwork make for a complete package of an album continuing the thematic feel of the last two releases.

Against Me - Laura Jane Grace

Laura Jane Grace on stage

As a band this feels like a new version of Against Me! blasting out at full force with Inge Johansson (bass) and Atom Willard (drums) feeling as much a part of the band now as founder Grace (lead vocal and guitar) and longtime collaborator James Bowman (guitar) giving the whole thing a more cohesive feel adding to the dynamics within the songs, even though they are all the brainchild of Grace.

While not as instantly blisteringly intense as Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Shape Shift With Me moves Against Me! forward and shows they’ve not let their recent brushes with more mainstream recognition, that has come from Grace’s personal situations, effect their musical mission of being a forthright and honest punk rock band. On top of that it all comes with a pace and power that can’t help but give a real sense of positivity to it, despite some of the darker subject matter.

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Against Me! – 23 Live Sex Acts

Against Me - 23 Live Sex Acts album coverLive albums come in a few different flavours; there are those that are cynical cash-ins on a band’s moment in the spotlight, those that come when the band seem incapable of recording a new studio album, those that are so overdubbed they may as well be a new studio album and those that are so under produced they are almost unlistenable.

Along with these come the very few that sound like they are genuinely intended to capture a moment and do so in a way raw enough to sound live but also well produced enough to be listenable. On their new live album, 23 Live Sex Acts, Against Me! succeed in delivering something that thankfully falls into this latter camp.

Recorded during the 2014 tour for their critically acclaimed Transgender Dysphoria Blues album at the fabulous named ‘Gritty Clit’ in Kiev, Indiana things start as they mean to go on with an insistent, marching drum beat and an announcement from frontwoman Laura Jane Grace stating, very matter of factly, that its time to “Fuck shit up”.

Laura Jane Grace of Against Me

Laura Jane Grace

This ‘never mind the bollocks’ attitude is something that has typified Grace’s public demeanour for the last couple of years and its great to hear it here. Whether she’s delivering socially and politically powerful songs, clearly having a good time with the crowd or berating the venue security her presence is astonishing, even in simple audio.

On top of this she delivers a (for to the point punk rock) varied vocal performance that is as impassioned as they come and still retains a hint of the more hardcore style the band’s early albums displayed alongside the cleaner tones of more recent material.

She’s ably backed by her right hand man and guitarist James Bowman who’s the only other member to be with the band since their first album and here provides backing vocals and extra guitar sounds that work to deepen the sound of the songs live so they match those on the more production heavy albums and with bassist Inge Johannson vocals add a gang dynamic to proceedings.

Atom Willard of Against Me

Atom Willard

With Johannson’s sped up rock ‘n’ roll bass and Atom Willard’s similarly styled, driving drums, the sound of the band is tight as they come as they deliver a sound that spans pop-punk singalong to distorted noise inflected moments and everything in between.

While the band is as precise as punk rock gets and the songs are one of the finest selections you’ll find, what really makes this album work is its vitality. Throughout the performance is tremendously high energy, as you’d expect, but what really stands out is that the rough edges haven’t been tidied up.

During New Wave, for example, Grace stops the song to challenge security on their attempt to eject someone from the show and, of course, the crowd is on her side, while later on you can hear her voice straining around Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ and How Low both things that on some albums would have been removed or tidied up, but here are left intact and help make the record.

Laura Jane Grace of Against Me

Laura Jane Grace

The set list is a career spanning one and as close to a ‘greatest hits’ set as a band with no chart ‘hits’ could get, while also drawing heavily on the latest album. Highlights include Pints of Guinness Make You Strong, True Trans Soul Rebel, High Pressure Low, Black Me Out and the more considered but hugely powerful set closer The Ocean that comes with a new sense of poignancy following Grace’s more recent life events.

A two song encore rounds of the album in upbeat style, including a well captured mass singalong, completing a set that lives up to the reviews of Against Me’s recent gigs and makes for one of the most honest and enjoyable live records I’ve heard.

Photos by Scott Nathanson at SFL Onstage.

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Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria BluesI have to admit that I came to Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! with fairly high expectations, mostly thanks to the good words I’d heard about it in pre-release from many of the band’s well-known fans on Twitter and because of the story this album captures a part of.

I’m pleased to say that my expectations were not only met, but exceeded, as across the 11 tracks I was treated to something that defines a modern sound for punk rock.

This sound is typified by the combination of influences that can be heard ranging previous versions of the genre from the 1970s to present day, so across the album there are hints at the darker sound of bands like AFI or Alkaline Trio, something of the early 90s pop-punk of The Offspring or early Green Day, hints at 80s hardcore and indie and even moments reminiscent of what started it all in the late 1970s.

Against Me!While this might sound like this would create something derivative, what it instead does is make a sound that is unique to Against Me! and provides something that, while it has a pop-sheen, has such an honest soul to it that it could never be anything but punk rock.

The album’s title track kicks things off and demonstrates the band at their best with a real call to arms intro that sucks the listener in (and stays in place for the next half hour) before Laura Jane Grace’s impassioned and to the point lyrics kick in.

Against Me! 1 by Katie Hovland GapersAs the title suggests the lyrics across the whole record deal with issues of identity and, predominantly (though not entirely), Grace’s personal ongoing identity battles. What makes this really work is how upfront the words are when it comes to talking about a subject rarely discussed so, while in some hands a line like “You’ve got no cunt in your strut, no hips to shake” could be crude and obvious, here they feel pure and honest in possibly startling fashion.

Production-wise the album combines the best elements of pop-rock and punk creating a tone that wouldn’t sound out-of-place alongside the likes of Foo Fighters, but with enough of a raw edge to still be emphatically what it is and not lose any of its honesty or focus.

While the title track is a knock-out highlight on the record, there are no moments which feel like they’ve been included as filler, which is often the case on albums as tight and lean as this, but other standout tracks include True Trans Soul Rebel, FUCKMYLIFE666 and Dead Friend.

FYF Fest 2012 - Day 2Across the album its clear that Grace’s vocal performance has grown throughout the band’s career and now seems to have hit a point where it combines the best of raw energy and power with a tempered side that allows more depth and emotion to come through which, backed by the band’s particular sound, makes for one of the most listenable, yet powerful, albums I’ve heard in quite some time.

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