Against Me! // Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Against Me! is one of those bands that has always eluded me. Several people whose music tastes I could trust revered them, and they were often referred to me as a staple of contemporary punk rock. I think I have listened to Reinventing Axl Rose once, though I can hardly remember it. It probably wasn’t a sound I was particularly interested in exploring, opting for music more in the vein of Dead Kennedys or Fugazi instead. So I’m not really sure why Transgender Dysphoria Blues was something I felt compelled to listen to. I think I just liked the name and the cover, and I think Laura Jane Grace coming out as a transgender woman a few years ago was certainly one of the more memorable stories in music in recent memory.
As for the album itself, I think I like it more than I think I do. That doesn’t make any sense but if I tried to intellectualize and describe the album to myself, it isn’t something I would like, but something about it is magnetizing to me and I’ve thought about it and returned to it on a relatively consistent basis for the better part of the last month.
Musically, I don’t think most of the album is particularly interesting. Not that I expect everything I enjoy to also be innovative or revolutionary, it’s just that Transgender Dysphoria Blues falls into the same pitfalls as many other punk albums of its ilk, with drum beats and power chords that could have been cut and pasted from bands like Rise Against or Green Day or Bad Religion. It’s the sort of thing I would expect to be playing on the local rock station (106.7FM KROQ if you were wondering or were interested in regional FM radio references) in between Foo Fighters marathons or bursts of Sublime (with Rome!). It all sounds very negative, and sure enough it is from a songwriting standpoint. The three-chord progressions leave little to the imagination played over typical punk-y drum rhythms, and odds are you’ve heard dozens of anthemic, arena rock. But it’s hardly a cardinal sin, especially given the short length of the album. If a formula works, it works, even if it is cookie cutter for my tastes. Though that’s not to say that the entire album suffers from it, just about half of it, but the way the album is sequenced leaves those songs right in the middle of the album. It’s not a particularly great thing when the least interesting songs on your album are all sequenced together in the middle. Transgender Dysphoria Blues' strengths really lie in the first two tracks (Transgender Dysphoria Blues and True Trans Soul Rebel, respectively) and when the song Two Coffins provides a break from the tedium with a change of pace. Luckily for Against Me! the things I find uninteresting about Transgender Dysphoria Blues are significantly buoyed by the things I love about it.
For most of the aforementioned bands, sure, generic anthem punk is damning and reason enough for me to not give music the time of day but Against Me! is elevated by Laura Jane Grace, who belts out every word with inimitable charisma and imbues genuine passion into very personal songs. Who can deny her delivery of lines like “Does God bless your transsexual heart, true trans soul rebel?” It’s reminiscent of the croon of someone like Billie Joe Armstrong (minus the self-righteous, snotty whining) where every line sung is telegraphed, ramped up and set to soar. It really fits the arena rock vibe of most of the album, and really without Laura Jane Grace, the whole thing would probably fall flat.
Hell, without Laura Jane Grace this album wouldn’t even exist. Arguably the strongest part of the album is how personal it is. It’s very much a documentation of Grace's experience with gender dysphoria, self-discovery, and all the pains and triumphs therein. It feels as if the words in this album are words Grace has formulated in her mind long before finally being able to commit it to recording and set it out to the world. Songs like Transgender Dysphoria Blues, True Trans Soul Rebel, and Paralytic States illustrate the frustrations of gender dysphoria and Drinking With the Jocks deals with trying to reconcile her identity with societal expectations. However, the entire album isn’t solely focused on Laura Jane Grace's struggles with identity, there are meditations on death and anger, like an airing of grievances.
Even though it isn’t particularly heady or anything, it’s passionate and sincere, and I think that’s what I really come out liking about this album. I can list numerous things I don’t like or don’t care for about most of this album but it’s heartfelt and personal, and that element really shines through especially considering the perspective that the songs are written from isn’t one that is particularly well-represented in music at all. It’s an album that still has a lot of character in spite of its generic musicality, and it manages to distinguish itself and be something I’ve thought about and revisited often.
3.5/5
Favorite track(s): Transgender Dysphoria Blues, True Trans Soul Rebel, Two Coffins, Paralytic States
Least favorite track(s): Drinking With the Jocks, Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ, Fuckmylife666

Against Me! // Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Against Me! is one of those bands that has always eluded me. Several people whose music tastes I could trust revered them, and they were often referred to me as a staple of contemporary punk rock. I think I have listened to Reinventing Axl Rose once, though I can hardly remember it. It probably wasn’t a sound I was particularly interested in exploring, opting for music more in the vein of Dead Kennedys or Fugazi instead. So I’m not really sure why Transgender Dysphoria Blues was something I felt compelled to listen to. I think I just liked the name and the cover, and I think Laura Jane Grace coming out as a transgender woman a few years ago was certainly one of the more memorable stories in music in recent memory.

As for the album itself, I think I like it more than I think I do. That doesn’t make any sense but if I tried to intellectualize and describe the album to myself, it isn’t something I would like, but something about it is magnetizing to me and I’ve thought about it and returned to it on a relatively consistent basis for the better part of the last month.

Musically, I don’t think most of the album is particularly interesting. Not that I expect everything I enjoy to also be innovative or revolutionary, it’s just that Transgender Dysphoria Blues falls into the same pitfalls as many other punk albums of its ilk, with drum beats and power chords that could have been cut and pasted from bands like Rise Against or Green Day or Bad Religion. It’s the sort of thing I would expect to be playing on the local rock station (106.7FM KROQ if you were wondering or were interested in regional FM radio references) in between Foo Fighters marathons or bursts of Sublime (with Rome!). It all sounds very negative, and sure enough it is from a songwriting standpoint. The three-chord progressions leave little to the imagination played over typical punk-y drum rhythms, and odds are you’ve heard dozens of anthemic, arena rock. But it’s hardly a cardinal sin, especially given the short length of the album. If a formula works, it works, even if it is cookie cutter for my tastes. Though that’s not to say that the entire album suffers from it, just about half of it, but the way the album is sequenced leaves those songs right in the middle of the album. It’s not a particularly great thing when the least interesting songs on your album are all sequenced together in the middle. Transgender Dysphoria Blues' strengths really lie in the first two tracks (Transgender Dysphoria Blues and True Trans Soul Rebel, respectively) and when the song Two Coffins provides a break from the tedium with a change of pace. Luckily for Against Me! the things I find uninteresting about Transgender Dysphoria Blues are significantly buoyed by the things I love about it.

For most of the aforementioned bands, sure, generic anthem punk is damning and reason enough for me to not give music the time of day but Against Me! is elevated by Laura Jane Grace, who belts out every word with inimitable charisma and imbues genuine passion into very personal songs. Who can deny her delivery of lines like “Does God bless your transsexual heart, true trans soul rebel?” It’s reminiscent of the croon of someone like Billie Joe Armstrong (minus the self-righteous, snotty whining) where every line sung is telegraphed, ramped up and set to soar. It really fits the arena rock vibe of most of the album, and really without Laura Jane Grace, the whole thing would probably fall flat.

Hell, without Laura Jane Grace this album wouldn’t even exist. Arguably the strongest part of the album is how personal it is. It’s very much a documentation of Grace's experience with gender dysphoria, self-discovery, and all the pains and triumphs therein. It feels as if the words in this album are words Grace has formulated in her mind long before finally being able to commit it to recording and set it out to the world. Songs like Transgender Dysphoria BluesTrue Trans Soul Rebel, and Paralytic States illustrate the frustrations of gender dysphoria and Drinking With the Jocks deals with trying to reconcile her identity with societal expectations. However, the entire album isn’t solely focused on Laura Jane Grace's struggles with identity, there are meditations on death and anger, like an airing of grievances.

Even though it isn’t particularly heady or anything, it’s passionate and sincere, and I think that’s what I really come out liking about this album. I can list numerous things I don’t like or don’t care for about most of this album but it’s heartfelt and personal, and that element really shines through especially considering the perspective that the songs are written from isn’t one that is particularly well-represented in music at all. It’s an album that still has a lot of character in spite of its generic musicality, and it manages to distinguish itself and be something I’ve thought about and revisited often.

3.5/5

Favorite track(s): Transgender Dysphoria BluesTrue Trans Soul RebelTwo CoffinsParalytic States

Least favorite track(s): Drinking With the JocksOsama Bin Laden as the Crucified ChristFuckmylife666

Cloud Nothings // Here and Nowhere Else
I was first introduced to Cloud Nothings in 2012 with the release of their third album, Attack On Memory. It was an album that I liked, however I felt like much of it was derivative of other emo albums that preceded it. But there was something charismatic and energetic about it and it was something I would return to occasionally, enough that I really anticipated Cloud Nothings' follow-up.
And so we have Here and Nowhere Else, an album that takes the poppier, punkier elements of Attack On Memory and just runs with it. Which, on paper, shouldn’t work because arguably the most interesting tracks off Attack On Memory (No Future/No Past, Wasted Days) were songs that went out on a limb to try to do something different. But it totally revels in dishing out song after straightfoward song (the exception being the seven minute penultimate song, Pattern Walks).
That being said, there isn’t a lot to say about the album as a whole. It’s just a solid collection of very energetic rock songs, punctuated by Dylan Baldi's emotive wailing, and some really great drumming by Jayson Gerycz (most notably the incredibly blistering last twenty seconds of Psychic Trauma). There isn’t anything I really dislike about the album, though it’s difficult to think of anything especially noteworthy about it either. I think from a songwriting standpoint it feels somewhat safe, so while this album went in a direction that worked, it didn’t necessarily go in a direction that’s especially interesting.
It’s worth a listen, and I think all things considered this is as good as this album could have been considering the direction it took.
4/5
Favorite track(s): Now Hear In, Psychic Trauma, Pattern Walks
Least favorite track(s): None

Cloud Nothings // Here and Nowhere Else

I was first introduced to Cloud Nothings in 2012 with the release of their third album, Attack On Memory. It was an album that I liked, however I felt like much of it was derivative of other emo albums that preceded it. But there was something charismatic and energetic about it and it was something I would return to occasionally, enough that I really anticipated Cloud Nothings' follow-up.

And so we have Here and Nowhere Else, an album that takes the poppier, punkier elements of Attack On Memory and just runs with it. Which, on paper, shouldn’t work because arguably the most interesting tracks off Attack On Memory (No Future/No Past, Wasted Days) were songs that went out on a limb to try to do something different. But it totally revels in dishing out song after straightfoward song (the exception being the seven minute penultimate song, Pattern Walks).

That being said, there isn’t a lot to say about the album as a whole. It’s just a solid collection of very energetic rock songs, punctuated by Dylan Baldi's emotive wailing, and some really great drumming by Jayson Gerycz (most notably the incredibly blistering last twenty seconds of Psychic Trauma). There isn’t anything I really dislike about the album, though it’s difficult to think of anything especially noteworthy about it either. I think from a songwriting standpoint it feels somewhat safe, so while this album went in a direction that worked, it didn’t necessarily go in a direction that’s especially interesting.

It’s worth a listen, and I think all things considered this is as good as this album could have been considering the direction it took.

4/5

Favorite track(s): Now Hear In, Psychic Trauma, Pattern Walks

Least favorite track(s): None

St. Vincent // St. Vincent
Strange Mercy is an incredible album. Let’s just get that out of the way. It wasn’t something I was particularly receptive to back in 2011. I was fairly unimpressed with what I thought to be a pop album that really tried to make a point of being dark and strange. But for whatever reason, it was something that I kept listening to, and still listen to on a regular basis. It’s grown to be an well-crafted album full of finesse and subtleties both instrumental and emotional, and it manages to expertly weave haunting melodies with chaotic dissonance. It’s stood up for me as something worth talking about for years to come and put Annie Clark on my radar as a songwriter with a very interesting career ahead of her (and behind, I suppose, since it’s not as if she hasn’t already released a significant body of work before Strange Mercy).
Some time between Strange Mercy and St. Vincent's latest self-titled album, two things happened that telegraphed the potential direction St. Vincent would take. The first was the release of Krokodil/Grot, a single sold exclusively on Record Store day in April of 2012. It was an incredible one-two punch illustrating two totally different philosophies with the same goal: rawness. Krokodil was a hyperactive, noisy, and concise track in the spirit of noise rock bands like Big Black or hardcore punk bands like Bad Brains or Black Flag (the song’s guitar riff actually reminds me of Black Flag's seminal opener to their album Damaged, Rise Above). Its fraternal twin, Grot, on the other hand was a methodical, lumbering behemoth, crawling along to sludgy riffs as Annie Clark droned on about the corrupting influence of power. Things were looking promising for the next St. Vincent album.
Then came St. Vincent's collaboration with David Byrne. A grouping that seemed brilliant on paper. Alas, in my opinion, Love This Giant was a mess, and not as great as it could have been considering the pedigree of its collaborators. Normally, I would say that the less said about that album, the better but unfortunately it seems as though David Byrne's influence left a lasting impression on Annie Clark (but who would blame her?).
Which leads us to this: St. Vincent, an album that I had very high hopes for, in spite of Love This Giant, mostly because all of Annie Clark's previous works were so great. I really had hoped that it would follow more in the vein of Krokodil/Grot, but while certain elements of those songs (Krokodil, to be specific) are present, they feel greatly overshadowed by the new wave-y bizarro-pop presence of David Byrne. I would say that the end result of the album feels like a watered down compromise, but the influence is far too one-sided to warrant that.
St. Vincent is a very consistent album, but to a fault. It’s well-established in its own identity and it certainly is exactly what it intends to be from the start. Unfortunately, it feels so rooted in trying to communicate a very specific aesthetic that the tone of the album almost the entire way through is very metered. There is nothing about St. Vincent that feels particularly surprising. It sacrifices the subtleties and turns present in Strange Mercy in return for a more concrete, but ultimately less interesting listen.
St. Vincent is not particularly varied and each song seems to fall into one of two camps: upbeat, fuzzy, guitar-driven pop songs or slower, more melodic fare. While that’s not necessarily bad, it does make it feel as though some of the songs just start to meld together after a while. Interestingly enough, I think the emphasis on catchy guitar riffs actually hurts the album. Even though a couple of my favorite songs fall into that category (Birth In Reverse and Regret in particular), in most of my favorite St. Vincent songs the guitar serves as a complement to the music around it, brief flashes of finesse in the midst of other layers of instrumentation. Annie Clark's chops with the guitar are still present in St. Vincent with some very slick riffs and soloing but it feels much less nuanced and lends itself to all having a very similar fuzziness that, while it definitely works for many other bands, makes many of the individual tracks feel as though they lack their own distinct identities. Also, it doesn’t always work, as is the case with Huey Newton which crescendos into a guitar riff that sounds a little too close to something you might find in a Black Keys or White Stripes song. I like my fair share of songs from either band, but it feels jarring and out of place in this context.
I don’t dislike St. Vincent, which might be hard to believe because I’ve done nothing but criticize it. I think it’s good, but just good. It’s just disappointing to me. I expected much more from it and it was one of my most anticipated releases since Strange Mercy. I had high hopes, and I think if this album were released by anyone else, I would certainly sing its praises, but it wasn’t, so I didn’t.
And maybe it’s unfair. Maybe it’s unfair for me to expect St. Vincent to triumph in the shadow of Strange Mercy. Maybe it’s unfair for me to turn it over constantly and compare it to Strange Mercy at every turn instead of trying to evaluate it on its own merits. But unfortunately, music does not exist in isolated bubbles, and I think any attempt to decontextualize music in order to better judge it “objectively” is an exercise in futility. Music is the furthest anything can possibly be from objective. How we experience music can only be determined by our own past experiences and our own perspective. I do not believe that an artist is only as good as their last album. Far from it, in fact, I’ve thrown my hat into the ring for St. Vincent for the foreseeable future.
The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to truly say you love something if it doesn’t make you feel anything. Strange Mercy, to me, represented this chaotic amalgam of emotions and feelings from dizzying joy to melancholy to righteous anger and indignation. It’s an album that makes me feel things, for better or for worse. I have listened to St. Vincent about seven times at this point, and I just don’t find myself that emotionally invested in most of it. Sure, there are sounds and rhythms and melodies and lyrics that I enjoy on some level, but at the end of the day as a complete package I just don’t feel particularly moved by it. And that’s a shame.
3.5/5
Favorite Track(s): Birth In Reverse, Prince Johnny, Regret, Psychopath
Least Favorite Track(s): Huey Newton, Bring Me Your Loves

St. Vincent // St. Vincent

Strange Mercy is an incredible album. Let’s just get that out of the way. It wasn’t something I was particularly receptive to back in 2011. I was fairly unimpressed with what I thought to be a pop album that really tried to make a point of being dark and strange. But for whatever reason, it was something that I kept listening to, and still listen to on a regular basis. It’s grown to be an well-crafted album full of finesse and subtleties both instrumental and emotional, and it manages to expertly weave haunting melodies with chaotic dissonance. It’s stood up for me as something worth talking about for years to come and put Annie Clark on my radar as a songwriter with a very interesting career ahead of her (and behind, I suppose, since it’s not as if she hasn’t already released a significant body of work before Strange Mercy).

Some time between Strange Mercy and St. Vincent's latest self-titled album, two things happened that telegraphed the potential direction St. Vincent would take. The first was the release of Krokodil/Grot, a single sold exclusively on Record Store day in April of 2012. It was an incredible one-two punch illustrating two totally different philosophies with the same goal: rawness. Krokodil was a hyperactive, noisy, and concise track in the spirit of noise rock bands like Big Black or hardcore punk bands like Bad Brains or Black Flag (the song’s guitar riff actually reminds me of Black Flag's seminal opener to their album Damaged, Rise Above). Its fraternal twin, Grot, on the other hand was a methodical, lumbering behemoth, crawling along to sludgy riffs as Annie Clark droned on about the corrupting influence of power. Things were looking promising for the next St. Vincent album.

Then came St. Vincent's collaboration with David Byrne. A grouping that seemed brilliant on paper. Alas, in my opinion, Love This Giant was a mess, and not as great as it could have been considering the pedigree of its collaborators. Normally, I would say that the less said about that album, the better but unfortunately it seems as though David Byrne's influence left a lasting impression on Annie Clark (but who would blame her?).

Which leads us to this: St. Vincent, an album that I had very high hopes for, in spite of Love This Giant, mostly because all of Annie Clark's previous works were so great. I really had hoped that it would follow more in the vein of Krokodil/Grot, but while certain elements of those songs (Krokodil, to be specific) are present, they feel greatly overshadowed by the new wave-y bizarro-pop presence of David Byrne. I would say that the end result of the album feels like a watered down compromise, but the influence is far too one-sided to warrant that.

St. Vincent is a very consistent album, but to a fault. It’s well-established in its own identity and it certainly is exactly what it intends to be from the start. Unfortunately, it feels so rooted in trying to communicate a very specific aesthetic that the tone of the album almost the entire way through is very metered. There is nothing about St. Vincent that feels particularly surprising. It sacrifices the subtleties and turns present in Strange Mercy in return for a more concrete, but ultimately less interesting listen.

St. Vincent is not particularly varied and each song seems to fall into one of two camps: upbeat, fuzzy, guitar-driven pop songs or slower, more melodic fare. While that’s not necessarily bad, it does make it feel as though some of the songs just start to meld together after a while. Interestingly enough, I think the emphasis on catchy guitar riffs actually hurts the album. Even though a couple of my favorite songs fall into that category (Birth In Reverse and Regret in particular), in most of my favorite St. Vincent songs the guitar serves as a complement to the music around it, brief flashes of finesse in the midst of other layers of instrumentation. Annie Clark's chops with the guitar are still present in St. Vincent with some very slick riffs and soloing but it feels much less nuanced and lends itself to all having a very similar fuzziness that, while it definitely works for many other bands, makes many of the individual tracks feel as though they lack their own distinct identities. Also, it doesn’t always work, as is the case with Huey Newton which crescendos into a guitar riff that sounds a little too close to something you might find in a Black Keys or White Stripes song. I like my fair share of songs from either band, but it feels jarring and out of place in this context.

I don’t dislike St. Vincent, which might be hard to believe because I’ve done nothing but criticize it. I think it’s good, but just good. It’s just disappointing to me. I expected much more from it and it was one of my most anticipated releases since Strange Mercy. I had high hopes, and I think if this album were released by anyone else, I would certainly sing its praises, but it wasn’t, so I didn’t.

And maybe it’s unfair. Maybe it’s unfair for me to expect St. Vincent to triumph in the shadow of Strange Mercy. Maybe it’s unfair for me to turn it over constantly and compare it to Strange Mercy at every turn instead of trying to evaluate it on its own merits. But unfortunately, music does not exist in isolated bubbles, and I think any attempt to decontextualize music in order to better judge it “objectively” is an exercise in futility. Music is the furthest anything can possibly be from objective. How we experience music can only be determined by our own past experiences and our own perspective. I do not believe that an artist is only as good as their last album. Far from it, in fact, I’ve thrown my hat into the ring for St. Vincent for the foreseeable future.

The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to truly say you love something if it doesn’t make you feel anything. Strange Mercy, to me, represented this chaotic amalgam of emotions and feelings from dizzying joy to melancholy to righteous anger and indignation. It’s an album that makes me feel things, for better or for worse. I have listened to St. Vincent about seven times at this point, and I just don’t find myself that emotionally invested in most of it. Sure, there are sounds and rhythms and melodies and lyrics that I enjoy on some level, but at the end of the day as a complete package I just don’t feel particularly moved by it. And that’s a shame.

3.5/5

Favorite Track(s): Birth In Reverse, Prince Johnny, Regret, Psychopath

Least Favorite Track(s): Huey Newton, Bring Me Your Loves