January 29, 2014

Test Spin: Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!

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The reigning machismo of punk rock is no new topic. Ever since disaffected jocks started picking slam-dancing over football as their preferred mode of unleashing aggression, punk — particularly offshoots of American hardcore — reeks of overt masculinity. Back in high school, when I was playing in a misplaced, wannabe version of The Hold Steady, kids in the Long Island hardcore scene  dismissed us as “faggots” because we wore button-downs and sweaters.  We brushed it off as empty hatred — half of us were lacrosse players! — but I could easily imagine how threatening the entire scene could be to someone for whom the word “faggot” was a bit more loaded, or for someone who wasn’t a big fan of the casual groping that often went down in the midst of those hormonally-charged mosh pits.

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace has been looking down the barrel of punk’s misogyny her entire life. Formerly known as Tom Gabel, she spent much of her life struggling with gender dysphoria and just recently announced her medical transition to living as a woman. Needless to say, it was a bit of a surprise to fans, despite a breadcrumb trail of clues (especially in “The Ocean” from 2007’s New Wave, in which Grace sang, “if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”).

Against Me!, a former anarcho-punk band turned Butch Vig’s (Nevermind producer) latest major label muse, is a band that has taken grand transformations in relative stride (not to compare record label changes to gender reassignment). On Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the rockers are back on an indie, Grace’s own Total Treble, and the production loses a lot of the overt sheen of Vig’s production. What it loses in gloss, though, Against Me! gains in aggression. The title track serves as a brilliant thesis: Grace airs trans-insecurities (“You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress / They just see a faggot / They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick”) as the locomotive rhythm section propels the chorus into bona fide anthem status.

The rest of the album doesn’t live up to the excitement generated by “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” — and how could it? — but still manages to serve up a couple of worthy moments. “True Trans Soul Rebel” has an explosively sweet chorus that rehashes the cheerleading of the title track. “Drinking With The Jocks” is a satisfyingly raucous reassurance that Grace’s hormone therapy hasn’t sanded over her gravelly vocal chords, though its broad depiction of bro culture (“Look at all the pussy, yeah / Fill them up with cum!”) could benefit from the slightest hint of subtlety.

The album’s shortcomings come primarily in the form of clumsy lyrics and formulaic songwriting. “Dead Friend” blows a strong verse melody by matching it with an over-sentimental clunker of a chorus. And on tracks like “Unconditional Love” and “Two Coffins,” Grace sounds like she’s trying too hard to do her best Geddy Lee impression, using a lilting delivery to sing of jaundiced skin and “perverse elasticity.”

Transgender Dysphoria Blues sounds best when Laura Jane Grace is excavating her past struggles with dysphoria for inspiration and finds anger. Whether its Grace realizing that she doesn’t want to “live without teeth” or “die without bite” on the wistful “FuckMyLife666” or the resurrection of Crass’s bilious political screeds on “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ,” these blues are best served with a healthy helping of accompanying blacks.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not some sort of definitive statement for transgendered persons, because Laura Jane Grace is not quite ready to make that statement. What she is ready to do, though, is continue her life as a punk rocker, and she shows that, at moments, she can flip off those in her way — misogynistic mosh pit molesters, especially — as well as anyone. If she can concentrate the anger and resentment exhibited on opener “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” into a full- length that’s a little less scatter-brained and a little more unconventional, Against Me! will have delivered a genuine classic. For now, let’s just take TDP for what it is: a liminal record that sees Against Me! tweaking its traditional sound to varying degrees of success.