New Releases: Against Me!, Young the Giant, Mogwai
Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not the Against Me! album that I wanted, and I’m still learning to live with that. By Laura Jane Grace’s account, the one we’re hearing is the third attempt, after band members left (Max’s son Jay Weinberg disappeared without a word to the band) and demand was in confusion (2010’s major-label contract-ender White Crosses sold far less than a blind listen would have you believe). She handles most of the bass, and some hack from Angels & Airwaves was given the unenviable task of doing the drums. James Bowman and Grace do their best to add guitar leads and other sonic color to songs with very little going on structurally between the chord changes. And Grace’s lyrics are not just inward as expected but among her most judgmental, vengeful, morose, and yes—looking at you “F***MyLife666”—immature. After the title track and “True Trans Soul Rebel” deliver caustic portraits of living in a transitioning body, the main thing you learn about the transgender experience is that it’s surrounded by death. Oh, and it sounds like it was produced by not amateur punks but amateur arena rockers, a huge letdown after Butch Vig’s crunch and wall o’ harmonies were often the reason why Crosses and 2007’s New Wave are among the best rock records of the last 20 years.
The thing is, conventional rules don’t apply here. Sick as we are of Godsmack or Chief Keef or maybe Lana Del Rey moaning about how death is their birthright, one benchmark for this record is changing the cliché of what rock has to say about it. When Grace sings “God bless your transsexual heart” to a romanticized prostitute, it might not first register as a prayer that she get home safe and alive. In the wake of Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s story last week, that’s all too real. Green Day and Korn sure experienced being called “faggots” as well as anyone who identifies with “Drinking with the Jocks,” and even the archetype “Jocks” feels reductive. But anyone who’s been an Against Me! fan knows “reductive” is their whole schtick, even if they taper it down to 29 minutes and largely let us fill in the meanings of whose walls they want to piss on, whose fingers they want to chop off, whose skulls they want to cave in.
So Grace, formerly known as Tom Gabel, introduced herself as a woman to little musical fanfare. This is pure back-to-the-garage, with the overarching Replacements and Dolls influences to solder it. Is it good? Certainly not as much as New Wave or White Crosses, though it’s still far from the overworded sea shanties on their first three albums. Is it a harrowing experience realizing these songs will never hit as hard for someone who doesn’t live in danger, or trying to write a critical analysis when you believe Grace was deeper when they were still beneath the surface? Yes, oh god. Much has been made of New Wave closer “The Ocean,” where Grace (then Gabel) first revealed the desire to live as a woman. But how about White Crosses envoi “Bamboo Bones”: “What God doesn’t give to you/ You’ve got to go and get for yourself.”
Young the Giant – Mind Over Matter (Fueled by Ramen)
Despite the occasional sign that this shockingly anonymous band isn’t flatlining—the choice of fastest track (“It’s About Time”) as first single, or the mildly sensual Foals rip “Eros”—there’s no reason to listen to Young the Giant. Their biggest hurdle in life is beating Portugal. The Man to third place in the There Is No Name For This Trend But It Exists rankings, well behind the advertising jingle writers (really! Explains a lot don’t it?) in Foster the People or the occasional surprises of the Dr. Dog-goes-grunge-maybe Cage the Elephant. It’s Young the Giant’s best interest to write songs that sound catchy, or deep, or both. Or to buy a reverb pedal. I’m trying to help you guys.
Mogwai – Rave Tapes (Sub Pop)
Like so many indie latecomers to songform, I’m supposed to praise an already beloved band for economizing. Did they become tighter writers? Bored of 11-minute songs that slowly transform from soft to loud (though not on a dime, and not as loud as their shows without uh, “audience participation” from the volume knob)? Realize life’s too short? Need to distinguish themselves from Explosions in the Sky? No matter the reason, Mogwai’s move to Sub Pop signaled shorter, more rhythmic songs with a structure that’s easier to plot on a line graph. On Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, this genuine surprise was pleasant. On Rave Tapes it’s not a surprise. It took Superchunk 23 years to whittle down to the power-pop hook machine you hear on I Hate Music. Mogwai has six to catch up, without the advantage of basting in protégés like Arcade Fire, Spoon, the Mountain Goats and the Magnetic Fields.
(Ryan Russell/Big Hassle)