Against Me!’s singer/ guitarist Laura Jane Grace made headlines when she announced she publicly identifies as a woman in 2012. The band’s album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is an extended reflection on her identity, even if the lyrics aren’t all directly autobiographical. Before coming out as trans, she dropped hints in several songs and devoted an entire verse of “The Ocean” to making it an open secret, singing, “And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/ My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” The life “The Ocean” imagines is one Grace would largely go on to live out, but at the time it was either ignored or taken as a cisgender man’s musings.
Against Me!’s two-album tenure on Sire Records, which produced “New Wave” and “White Crosses,” was unhappy. Despite getting some airplay with their single “Thrash Unreal,” the band didn’t live up to the label’s expectation that their accessible punk style, which has earned many comparisons to the Clash, could make them the next Green Day, and they got dropped quickly. Released on their own Total Treble label, the 2014 “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” made a big statement, and it actually proved to be their most popular.
If they’ve never found mass commercial success, Grace has become a cult hero — her memoir “Tranny: Confession of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout” was published in 2016. And the band has shown its staying power and headed toward a harsher, more purist punk sound. If “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” has a major flaw, it’s that its music could have been made 25 or 30 years ago, even if blunt lyrics about the hatred and anxiety a trans woman faces are something new for a rock group with a substantial audience.
Now Grace is releasing a side project under a different band, Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. Despite the reputation of her new label, Bloodshot Records, “Bought to Rot” isn’t influenced by folk or country music. There are songs which could’ve fit easily on Against Me!’s major label albums, like the opener “China Beach.” Indeed, the Devouring Mothers aren’t a wholly new lineup: they consist of Against Me! drummer Atom Willard and the group’s producer Marc Jacob Hudson on bass. Grace has headed in a direction that combines punk and classic rock. “Manic Depression” isn’t a Jimi Hendrix cover, but the guitar solo that ends it nods to him.
Grace has cited Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever” as her main inspiration for the album, but she sings with an intensity he only went for occasionally. This album frequently contrasts clean acoustic or electric rhythm guitar with louder, more distorted leads, as on “Apocalypse Now (& later).” Several songs start out fairly slow and quiet and build up to a noisy chorus or crescendo. Grace strained to be a conventional vocalist on Against Me!’s major label albums, and on “Bought to Rot” her vocals are as often spoken or shouted as sung melodically.
One big difference between “Bought to Rot” and Against Me! is that Grace sounds happier here. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” addressed subjects like trans women’s rejection as not being genuinely female with a great deal of righteous anger. “Drinking With the Jocks” took on Brett Kavanaugh types before “toxic masculinity” was a buzzword in thousands of op-eds. Her targets have included the hypocrisy of leftist punks, on the much-misunderstood “I Was A Teenage Anarchist.”
The most pissed-off song on “Bought To Rot” is “I Hate Chicago,” which irreverently takes on the sacred cows of the city where she now lives. But its disses of famous local rock bands and complaints about traffic jams and impolite pedestrians are clearly meant with a wink, coming across more like Larry David than the Dead Kennedys. A few lines hint that her problems with life in Chicago are ultimately rooted in the fact that her ex-wife still lives there. While all these lyrics may not be personal confessions, the persona Grace expresses on this album is more reflective and willing to acknowledge her mistakes than were her lyrics for Against Me!
The rough tone and production of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” matched the newfound honesty of Grace’s lyrics, even on songs like “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” that didn’t address her trans identity. The band’s follow-up album, “Shape Shift With Me,” was a fairly weak follow-up that felt like more of the same with less impact. Ironically, Against Me! were at their most musically adventurous in their use of acoustic guitars, keyboards, and vocal harmonies to aim for a more mainstream sound on “New Wave.” In many ways, “Bought to Rot” feels like a continuation of that direction. However, it also reflects a peace Grace seems to have gone through hell to find. Even at their angriest, Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers keep a sense of humor and come across optimistic. Grace’s criticism is directed at her own flaws as much as the outside world.
LAURA JANE GRACE AND THE DEVOURING MOTHERS | “Bought to Rot” | Bloodshot Records | Drops Nov. 9 | bloodshotrecords.com