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Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers - Bought to Rot Music Album Reviews

The debut album from the Against Me! singer’s new side project doubles as a deserved break from her very public role as a trans ambassador, but the songwriting too often feels like rock-band karaoke.

Laura Jane Grace needed a break from her own very public identity. Six years ago, Grace famously announced that the traces of gender dysphoria in many songs by her bracing Florida punk band, Against Me!, had not been fictional muses. For her entire life, she had been uncomfortable in a man’s skin and clothes, so she had recently started the transition into the gender identity and body she’d needed for so long. Grace was an early, essential participant in a much larger conversation about transgender rights and visibility in the United States that soon included past Olympic heroes and current Olympic hopefuls, the right to choose a restroom and the right to exist at all. Grace has shied from neither the spotlight nor the microphone since her announcement, using her platform to explain transgender identity and explore related issues in a frank book, talk show, and more interviews and essays than lead singers of most 20-year-old punk bands get. Those same ideas became the grist of subsequent Against Me! albums, too, the band’s former antiwar and anti-consumerist reflections largely swapped for public examinations of very private matters. It must have been exhausting.

Bought to Rot, Grace’s debut with her economical trio the Devouring Mothers, is the distraction she wanted. Relatively free of expectations and history, the record is intended both as an escape from Against Me! baggage and as an outlet for songs that don’t fit the band’s incisive agitprop schema. Nevertheless, the players are familiar: Veteran drummer Atom Willard has been the Against Me! anchor for five years now, while bassist Marc Jacob Hudson produced the band’s most recent live and studio albums. Grace forgoes most any mention of gender dysphoria or politics here, instead exploring rather extreme versions of entirely pedestrian emotions—new friends so simpatico they make the world make sense, relevancy anxiety so intense it induces existential dread, breakup pains so bad they make you curse an entire city. These songs are the sounds of someone sorting through the exigencies of life itself, not meeting spokesperson demands. That’s about the best thing they manage.

This set, Grace has said, is meant to play out like a mixtape, with disparate styles and moods shaping a winding emotional and musical path. For opener “China Beach,” she howls, “Don’t breathe, don’t swallow,” over guitars and drums that sound like teen spirit. Then she offers a shout-out-loud anthem for goths in love, an open-road pop-punk tune about a relationship that never had a chance, and an emphatic acoustic strummer about a friend who even makes the impending apocalypse OK. There’s a born-this-way celebration that echoes the glory days of Butch Walker’s Marvelous 3 and a placating ode that flips between the twinkling reassurance of a lullaby and the power of post-rock with the same wonder as pre-recession Death Cab for Cutie. At the very least, the Devouring Mothers avoid any facile Against Me! echo.

But this turntable of pastiche never allows Grace and the Devouring Mothers to develop an identity beyond Against Me! side project or to scratch much more than the surface of these assorted styles. Owing in part to the trio’s shared experience and chemistry, this feels a lot like rock-band karaoke, new lyrics dropped into old frames already built by songwriters working at a higher level. “The Airplane Song” is a less vivid version of a Mountain Goats song about the doomed Alpha Couple, from the breakneck verses to the backing vocals as Grace heads for the chorus. During “Amsterdam Hotel Room,” you can picture Craig Finn onstage circa 2005, agitated into a maniacal froth and pushing his glasses back up his nose. “The Friendship Song” is a Hallmark version of the Moldy Peaches with better chops, “Manic Depression” a Shellac-style tirade badly buttressed by soft-core noise-rock. Only the hilarious “I Hate Chicago” seems to have its own personality. At first a philippic against the pizza, music, sports, traffic, and general lack of congeniality in Grace’s home base of the last six years, it’s a feint, a stand-in for Grace’s disdain for any place her ex likes. Unlike the rest of Bought to Rot, “I Hate Chicago” feels upfront and unmitigated, not the product of a preassembled mood board of inspirations.

You can’t fault Grace for needing a diversion from the weight of the last six years, even in a moment where her voice seems necessary. Her openness about her gender and her transition have become so pervasive that almost no one hears Against Me! anymore without viewing everything as another dysphoric breadcrumb. Bought to Rot is an act of self-care, a new hobby meant to lessen the strain of one’s actual occupation. And, who knows, given enough time and attention, it could become Grace’s primary outlet, as it’s long been clear that she has interests outside of bristling pop-punk. But this is an uncharacteristically tentative first step from someone so given to bold moves.

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