Laura Jane Grace will be a familiar name to anyone versed in punk rock. Recently, the Chicago-based singer put her two-decade-old band Against Me! on a brief hold to get a few confessions off her chest. “I don’t have many friends,” she sings early on Bought to Rot, before adding she’ll self-sabotage any friendship that comes her way.
Grace’s work here with a pair of veteran collaborators—Against Me! drummer Atom Willard and bassist/organist/producer Marc Jacob Hudson—and avoids her main group’s polished, full-throttle assault. Instead, the Devouring Mothers feel like a rootsy, punk-leaning garage band. In interviews, Grace says the album was inspired by Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. While the latter sounds more restrained than the fare of the Devouring Mothers, the comparison is not completely left-of-center. Lightly drawing from folk, country, and ol’ fashioned drinking songs, Born to Rot, like much of Petty’s work, embraces tough, working-class American music.
The personal drama on Born to Rot lends itself to a break-up movie. High Fidelity springs to mind, with plenty of bitterness, plus a Chicago setting, to dovetail with the spirt of Grace’s record. Yet High Fidelity is ultimately about how external forces impact our views on romance, and Grace’s songs focus on one’s internal hell. “No one wants to be themselves,” Grace howls on the album. “They all want to be someone else.”
Indeed, this year’s indie film Wobble Palace delivers the sort of emotional mess Grace’s tunes deserve. The work tracks two lovers who now despise one another but can’t afford to get their own place. Each partner gets 24 hours over one weekend to host whomever they want in the apartment, leading to plenty of chaos, misunderstandings, and brutal heartache. The movie is about being uncomfortable in one’s own skin and out of place in one’s own home (see Grace’s “I Hate Chicago”). The characters, by exploring their sexuality, try to figure out exactly who they are—or can be. A Grace lyric such as “Your mine/ I’m yours/Torn between two lovers” reflects such emotional existentialism and exhaustion.
As the architect of longstanding Florida punk outfit Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace is well-versed in confrontation and rowdy sing-alongs. Her solo debut teems with both. No song better illustrates her talent for delivering anger with a snarl and a smile as well as “I Hate Chicago,” an anthem dedicated to her adopted hometown and so full of loathing, it can only come from a place of love. She hates all the sports teams, the city’s beloved bands, the traffic, and the pizza. Yet Grace proves uniquely self-aware as a songwriter and let’s the audience know her frustrations really owe to a recent break-up. In such a context, her venom comes across as less of a rant and more of an opportunity to blow off some steam. In other words, it’s relatable.
Much of Bought to Rot channels similar emotions. It strikes the familiar, comforting tones of a night out with some friends who allow everyone to vent. “China Beach” serves as a self-esteem pep talk, where sharp, razor-wire guitar strikes build to a chorus in which Grace shouts her voice hoarse. (Just in case anyone thought the record would be less intense than Against Me!, fear not.) “The Friendship Song,” a love tune dedicated to dysfunctional pals, unfolds akin to a family-room sing-along built for stomping around on the couch. Later, “The Hotel Song” and “The Apology Song” feel like folksy bookends, where the narrator is only disappointed in herself. In between arrives “Valeria Golino,” a tightly wound number named after an Italian actress and which seemingly laments the difficulty in making connections. “I need eye contact,” Grace sings through gritted teeth.
For Grace, who came out as transgender six years ago, the album appears to symbolize a brief reset. Recent Against Me! works addressed her deeply intimate struggles. A book, Tranny, and an online series, “True Trans with Laura Jane Grace,” have also documented her now very public personal life. While Grace isn’t shy about revealing her inner thoughts here—“I need something or someone to relieve the tension and anxiety” she sings on “Manic Depression,” pleading for some “sex or drugs or destruction”—the mood remains relatively relaxed and casual, of making a racket and doing it without too much thought. After all, the album was recorded in a week, and the improvised passion that led to its creation comes through loud and clear.
Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, known for its work in the alt-country realm, gives the no-fuss set a no-fuss presentation. Lyrics are printed on one double-sided page, written in a font lifted from a mid-80s PC. The front cover photograph of an abandoned building is augmented by what seems to be a text exchange between Grace and Bloodshot. The thin cardboard sleeve is at best functional, the graphics average, and the white, slightly translucent viny housed in a thin paper sleeve.
The self-produced album (remember, there’s a producer in the band) functions as punk at its most direct. It sounds raw, with crisp and reverberating drums. Grace’s voice gets framed just above the music and comes across as if she’s delivering a sermon. Overall, the sonics feel robust, in contrast to the thin slickness that plagues many modern punk recordings. The vinyl, however, did not arrive completely flat. And when the guitars are turned down, expect to hear more than a few ticks here and there. Not an audiophile release by any means. But then again, the Devouring Mothers celebrate life’s warts, so your mileage may vary.
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