This ‘Against Me!’ article was written by Jessica Otterwell, a GIGsoup contributor
Live albums are notoriously difficult beasts to review, mainly because they often offer no new material, rather just alternate takes on a band’s back catalogue. Only die-hard fans will pick up on the tiny nuances, a changed drum beat or an altered chorus. In short there are probably very few people who can say they became a fan of a band through a live album.
Then there are the other ones, albums that evoke a time and a place, the back story to the band shines through, the energy from the crowd sizzles and bursts out of the speakers like a bomb, you’re dragged in, you’re there whether you want to be or not. This is where Against Me!’s latest live offering, 23 Live Sex Acts comes in. The album was recorded on the band’s UK tour in winter 2014, their first proper UK tour since 2008. This visit to across the Atlantic marked a number of milestone firsts for the band. It was the first UK tour since leaving a major record label (Warner imprint, Sire), gaining two new members, in one time Refused bassist Inge Johansson and former Angels & Airwaves drummer, Atom Willard. In addition, lead singer, Laura Jane Grace came out as a transgender woman in a high profile and incredibly moving Rolling Stone interview.
A title like 23 Live Sex Acts should tell you a little something about how this album will sound, look and feel, even before you play it. For starters, the cover is designed by long term collaborator; artist and one time porn film set dresser, Steak Mtn. The artwork is unapologetic, featuring a severed penis on a plate with a spoon, as its centre piece. ‘Come on in’, it seems to be saying…’if you think you can handle it’. Things kick off in set list order, with Fuckymylife666, a song title inspired by Grace’s late friend, Pope. The intro is extended, the anticipation of the crowd building, then the band walk on stage, ‘Let’s fuck shit up’ Grace announces, before the band unleash the start of a one hour twenty six minute blast of pure, charged energy.
Stand out moments include a furious rendition of Walking is Still Honest, played right after the band have stopped the gig so Laura can berate a security guard for ejecting an audience member. This is a band that is with their fans, for their fans and the live experience is what Against Me! are all about, it pours out of them, shines out of them. Songs such as True Trans Soul Rebel have audience members singing in unison, ‘does god bless your transsexual heart?’ It is a joyous moment and showcases the journey the band and their fans have been on.
Something this live album does incredibly well is highlight Grace’s gift as a songwriter. Where occasionally, on studio albums, her lyrics are lost in production, here they are open, raw and bleeding from the stereo, begging you to listen. The depth on Pints of Guinness make you strong, is evident with its story of Grace’s alcoholic grandfather, ‘and just like James, I’ll be drinking Irish tonight’ the crowd joins in, you can feel the excitement, but just as quickly Grace delivers the line ‘If I had known, just how things would’ve ended up, I just would have let myself die’. There is a melancholy buried in that melody and it’s infectious and it’s real.
Atom Willard and Inge Johansson blend with long standing original member James Bowman, as though this is where they should always have been as a band. Willard’s drumming is ferocious, energized and creative, Johnasson adding crazy ad lib bass lines to long term favourites, I Still Love You Julie and The Ocean.
Production is raw, ragged and fast. Tracks end abruptly; there is no time to waste. This album is very much about the here and the now. Listening to this, there is sweat and the spice of danger. One final singalong on We Laugh At Danger and Break All the Rules proves tantalising, you’ll be begging for more.