Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose Music Album Reviews

Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Laura Jane Grace’s 2002 folk-punk salvo, an album that yearns for an escape from and through rock’n’roll.

When you’re especially young, pop music opens a world where things actually happen. Behind the brittle plastic of a jewel case or the curved glass of a TV console, a gleaming reality promises a life outside the walls of your parents’ home. As a young Army brat flung between cities and continents, Laura Jane Grace clung to the image of Axl Rose as it came to her through MTV. The flash, bang, and squeal of Guns N’ Roses electrified her imagination. “Their music appealed to me because it felt dangerous. I was afraid of my parents seeing the liner note artwork,” she wrote in her 2016 memoir. “The look of the band, particularly that of wiry lead singer Axl Rose, excited me most because it was androgynous. Hair was big, clothes were tight, lines were blurred. I often couldn’t tell if band members were boys or girls, and I liked that.”

That was third grade. By age 21, Grace had changed her tune. “It’s obvious Axl Rose is a jerk,” she said then. She was explaining the title of her band’s debut album, Reinventing Axl Rose, to a newspaper reporter. The record’s cover featured a black and white stencil of the Guns N’ Roses singer with his arms flung wide, in seeming ecstasy before an adoring crowd. The band’s name, Against Me!, slammed against the back of his head with the bluntness of a midcentury propaganda poster, and red stars rained down over his shoulders. “In a way I’m pleading not so much for a new rock star, because a rock star is still a rock star, but for how music should be,” Grace said.

In the years between her grade school adulation and the jaded frustrations of her early twenties, the cracks in the adult world yawned open for Grace. The shine of a music video no longer offered a portal to a better plane; pop music lost its season, like tinsel spilling from a dumpster sometime in late February. Grace’s parents split while she was in middle school, and her mother moved the kids from Italy to Naples, Florida, a sleepy, wealthy enclave across the state from Miami where their grandmother lived. Grace bristled at her bleached, manicured surroundings. She grew out her hair and went punk, spiking her mohawk with food-grade gelatin and stitching patches onto her jeans as armor. By 15 she’d been convicted of two felonies after a cop brutalized her for standing around on a boardwalk; she spat in his face and he hog-tied her in the back of his car. By 16, she’d dropped out of high school and discovered the Minneapolis-based anarcho-punk collective Profane Existence, which put out releases with high contrast, xeroxed covers from scrappy hardcore bands like State of Fear and Civil Disobedience. These DIY factions proved music could open up into a current that ran deeper than the glitz of MTV. It could incubate politics more fervent and fertile than the adulation of the already wealthy. It could tether maladapted kids to each other with electrified wire, and carry them forward through the days of a world that seemed to want them dead.

Against Me! coalesced around Grace when she was in her late teens. She dubbed her first tapes in her bedroom and printed the inserts at Kinko’s. She played her first show under that name at a vegan restaurant in Fort Myers, in the middle of the day, to two dozen bored Floridians. In 1998, at 18, Grace recorded the band’s second tape, Vivida-Vis!, this time with friends: Kevin Mahon hammered away on a rudimentary drum kit while Dustin Fridkin scratched out bass. Through the hiss and crackle of the format, the warmth of Grace’s songwriting had already started to radiate; already, she had learned to cut wistful melodies and intricate lyricism with fevered aggression, to layer the overtones of acoustic instruments under the bite of electric ones. Folk delicacy and punk bluntness melted down into the same choked gutter, a combination that would prove fertile for decades of DIY music to come. The words she sang dissolved in her rasp, but could be recovered more or less in full on the photocopied inserts included with every tape. The band mailed copies of the cassette around the country to friends Grace had made through the punk zine networks of the late ’90s. The spring after putting out Vivida-Vis!, in early 1999, Against Me! set off on its first tour, playing punk houses, garages, and open mic nights further up the East Coast and in the Midwest. They slept outside and made no money, subsisting largely off dumpster diving and the reluctant sympathy of underpaid fast food workers.

Touring only deepened Grace’s disgust for Naples. After Against Me! pressed its vinyl debut, a self-titled 12" EP, on pen pal Jordan Kleeman’s label Crasshole, the band made its way north to the college town of Gainesville. In journal entries written shortly after the move, reprinted in her memoir, Grace detailed the gender rituals she would carry out in private. Dysphoria had followed her since early childhood when she saw Madonna perform on television and felt her inner self reflected in the pop star. She started trying on her mother’s stockings in secret on Sundays after her parents dragged her to church. Believing he had two sons, her father kiboshed any expressions of femininity he picked up on in Grace, chiding her when he noticed her playing with a neighbor’s Barbie dolls. Grace quickly learned to keep her longing private. In grade school, she read about the trans pro tennis player Renée Richards and learned that the gender stamped on a birth certificate need not be a lifelong sentence. Fed up with God’s silence on the issue, she inked a plea to Satan in her own blood asking to wake up a fully grown woman. Satan, too, failed to deliver. With no one left to ask, she kept ritualizing her submerged identity by putting on women’s clothes in secret: first her mother’s, then garments she shoplifted and salvaged from the trash. “The door to my bedroom is shut and locked. I have double and triple-checked,” Grace wrote in her journal in 2000, at age 19. “I light a cigarette and suddenly become real. I become her.”

”Who was ’her’? She was the person I imagined myself to be, in another dimension, in a past life, in some dream,” Grace wrote years later in her memoir. She quarantined the desire to become herself inside the safety of the third person. Oblique references to dysphoria slipped into her lyrics. Against Me!’s 2002 EP The Disco Before the Breakdown contains pained lines about the rough edges of embodiment on the title track, questions forced through gritted teeth on “Tonight We’re Gonna Give It 35%.” “Can you live with what you know about yourself/When you’re all alone, behind closed doors?” Grace sings in the second song’s last stanza. By Disco, Against Me! had shifted from the homespun production of their early tapes and adapted their setup to a cleaner studio sound. Grace wrote “35%” in part about shopping the band’s debut album around to punk labels. Anti-Flag took interest, but in the end Against Me! signed to No Idea, a Gainesville-based imprint that had built a dedicated following throughout the ’90s with releases from local punk bands like Less Than Jake and Hot Water Music.

In retrospective interviews, Grace has said that Against Me! recorded Reinventing Axl Rose in two days, back to back. The CD insert lists four, but the point remains: These were loose, rowdy, largely live sessions where friends from the scene dropped in to track backing vocals after spending their mornings drinking. Save for “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” a group effort originally intended for a separate band, the songwriting on Reinventing is all Grace. The energy, though, is communal. Gone is the nervous hush blanketing the growls on Grace’s early bedroom tapes. The band’s debut LP finds her in full-throated camaraderie with a roomful of other punks, scraping out tracks on the limited studio time they could afford, moving fast and sloshing over the minutia. What Grace sings on record often departs from what she’s written in the album’s liner notes, which are studded with parenthetical clarifications. After the elongated “Mary” on the chorus to “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules),” Grace writes, “as in ’the virgin,’” though she would later also mention that Mary is the name of her paternal grandmother. Song titles differ between the insert and the back cover; what’s called “Jamaican Me Crazy” inside the booklet got (thankfully) renamed to “Scream It Until You’re Coughing Up Blood” by the time the track listing was finalized. This was a roughshod and explosive debut, the sound of bottled teen angst barrelling over into the bitter deflations of young adulthood.

Two big, interrelated questions hang over Reinventing Axl Rose: What’s in the membrane that keeps you from death, and what’s the most that music can really do? The album begins with “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,” a rumination on Grace’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn, who had been lodged deep in mourning ever since her husband, James, died 16 years before Grace was born. “Grandma Evelyn, who never remarried after her husband died of a heart attack in 1964, would slip into depression and not get out of bed for days. We would admit her to the hospital for treatment, and she’d spend a month here, get released, and six months later, need to be admitted again. I felt like I understood her hopelessness,” Grace wrote in her memoir. On “Pints,” Grace flexes her knack for tangible illustration in her lyrics. Evelyn’s passage through time snags on objects like her late husband’s AA card, still in his wallet, which still rests on their bedside table. She waits by the elevator as though he might someday step out of it. She drifts through decades in the same haze. Grace fears both her grandmother’s defection from progressive time and her grandfather’s self-obliteration. “Just like James, I’ll be drinking Irish tonight/And the memory of this last work week will be gone forever,” she sings at the chorus, her voice throwing sparks. The threat of eternal repetition and eternal amnesia galvanizes her. So does a love for her grandparents that stretches past death.

Terror of being stuck permeates Reinventing Axl Rose: stuck in Florida, stuck in America, stuck in poverty, stuck in patriarchy, stuck in a life closed off to reprieve or escape. The whole album howls against the quicksand of capitalist compulsion. “If Florida takes us/We’re taking everyone down with us/Where we’re coming from will be the death of us,” Grace promises in the group bark-along on “We Laugh at Danger.” Where she’s going feels murkier. What kind of world can you raise from the negative space of your dissatisfaction? Reinventing sketches the edges of that place with equal parts humor and rage. The satirical barbs of “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” make a worthy sequel to Phil Ochs’ 1966 evisceration “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” its sights trained on the same immutable target 36 years later. “Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious…” traces the gulf between the longing for utopia as you see it and the messiness of trying to put it in practice. “It’s so much less confusing when lines are drawn like that/When people are either consumers or revolutionaries, enemies or friends,” Grace sings. An us-versus-them framework makes for great fun in a campfire singalong, but it flattens the world and the people who comprise it. How do we speak to each other beyond locating a common enemy? How do you build something new while the world around you collapses? On the snarling “Walking Is Still Honest,” a brisk and wrenching cut that, alongside “Pints,” still makes most Against Me! setlists two decades later, Grace finds a springboard in the ruins. “You can reach but you’ll never have it/We are untouchable/Untouchable is something to be,” she concludes in the last verse. There is freedom in accepting you’ll never win the game as it’s laid out for you. Sometimes the holes in your life grow so big they become doors.

Grace’s belief that music could drive communion rings out from every note of this album, even as she actively questions the extent of what music can do. She invokes Axl Rose not just as a symbol of the pop world’s excesses, but as a reminder of the way Guns N’ Roses made her feel as a kid: tapped into a secret power, lit up with the blaze of a great hook. “Maybe somehow this scam will still save us all,” she posits, dragging out the last three syllables, on “I Still Love You Julie.” On the record’s title track, Grace dreams of a band that plays with no hope of fame or wealth, a band that plays loud enough to fuse its listeners together: “Let’s make everybody sing that they are the beginning and ending of everything/That we are all stronger than everything they taught us that we should fear.”

A more perfect life lurks behind each of these songs, but it glows across the slow, mournful album closer “8 Full Hours of Sleep.” Here, Grace sings of a world just beyond this one: “Without classes, without nations,” without loneliness or scarcity or cold. She sings out to an unnamed “her,” someone who embraces the dreamer unceasingly, someone whose presence is so unbounded and mythological I can’t help but suspect Grace is singing to the potential self she also referred to in the third person in her most private writings. Here, she digs out the truth that fighting a war with yourself does the work of your enemies for them. It keeps you from plunging wholeheartedly into your own work: You have to live inside your own hands to really get them dirty. For a moment, against a melancholic Moog bassline, Grace dreams herself into a world she’s made real. It’s all there, the partitions melted away, one continuous experience. And then the sun burns through the haze and the dream evaporates; you wake up on someone’s floor in a rancid state and spend another day clawing toward yourself all the same. It’s slow, but you get there like you get anywhere. You scream it to yourself until it’s true.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose Music Album Reviews Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on October 23, 2022 Rating: 5


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