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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Albums of the Week: "Shelter" by Alcest and "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" by Against Me!


This week, two different albums caught my attention for two completely different reasons. One is a shimmering piece of shoegazing bliss, the other is a soul-bearing punk record that punches you in the teeth and pulls at your heartstrings. Shelter is French-bred Alcest's best work yet, as the band strays further and further away from its black metal roots. Transgender Dysphoria Blues' title states up front the issues discussed in the album's lyrics; the first Against Me! release since singer Laura Jane Grace began living as a woman. Obviously, there are some hugely emotional and personal topics for Grace to sing about, and she lets it fly on Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I've decided today to review both albums because I think each one is special for varied, but equally important reasons: Shelter sounds beautiful, while the content on Transgender Dysphoria Blues makes it one of the most unique, raw, and important albums in a long, long time.

Alcest's career trajectory has been somewhat of a strange one; the group formed as a black metal outfit before two members of the trio departed, leaving current frontman Neige as the sole member. Since then, the group has taken a much more shoegaze-styled approach, adding a new drummer along the way. Jump to this month, when the Paris-based duo released Shelter, an excellent and well thought-out dreampop record. Neige claims the music he writes represents his childhood memories of dream-like transcendental experiences. The songs on Shelter definitely fit this mold, as the sparkling guitar lines and sleepy vocals can attest to. "Opale" features a sunny guitar riff and Neige's gentle singing, and deluxe edition bonus track "Into the Waves" (available on iTunes) is another favorite of mine, thanks to a catchy chorus and enthused drumming. Album closer "Deliverance" stretches out to a full ten minutes of lush soundscapes a general feeling of warmth. Shelter may be sung in French, but that doesn't detract from its sheer sonic beauty. The instrumentation is immaculate, and the songs are well-structured. Hopefully this album doesn't suffer from the same plight as countless other albums released early in calendar years of being forgotten by critics as they consider entries for their year-end list, for Shelter is certainly a good enough album to deserve some recognition.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, we have Against Me! and their sixth studio album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. In contrast to Shelter's timid, relaxed mood, TDB is an abrasive, in-your-face punk record filled with furious drum beats and shouted vocals. The album also starkly contrasts Shelter in length; you could nearly get through the first four songs on the former in the time it takes to listen to "Deliverance" in full. This is indicative of the genres each record falls under, as shoegaze songs tend to stretch out while punk tracks often cut short. All that said, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a solid rock record. It resides in the same vein as other AM! releases, following a formula that has always suited the band. 

While it sounds good, this album's strength doesn't lie in guitar riffs or melodic hooks. No, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is all about the lyrics. It's a statement record, no doubt, judging from the title. This album's release is a huge moment not only for Laura Jane Grace, but also for American pop culture. When Tom Gabel came out as transgender, adopted the name Laura Jane Grace, and started her transition into life as a woman, she became the most famous musician to publicly reveal themselves to be transgender. In doing so, she undoubtedly inspired other transgender persons to be more confident in themselves as well as raising cultural awareness for the psychological struggles transgender people go through. At the same time, some fans and critics alike were understandably shocked, but most were supportive of Grace. It only seems fitting that a punk musician would become one of the first major transgender public figures, as the genre has always been categorized by its reluctance to conform to society's expectations and its encouragement of individualism. 

The songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues do a great job of portraying how Grace, and on a larger scale transgender people as a whole, deal with their gender identity. The title track opens the album with a discussion on how others view transgender individuals. "You want them to see you like they see every other girl/they just see a f**got/They hold their breath not to catch the sick," laments Grace. On the next track, lead single "True Trans Soul Rebel," she shouts "you should've been a mother/you should've been a wife/you should've been gone from here years ago/you should be living a different life." The song itself is an absolute monster, perhaps the best on the album. 

With Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me! and specifically Laura Jane Grace are doing exactly what every punk group does on a politically-charged album: they've made their lyrics brutally honest and extremely transparent, leaving it all on the table and showing a big middle finger to those who stand in their way. In this sense, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is nothing too special. But considering the subject matter, as well as the ongoing worldwide LGBT rights movement, this album is most definitely special. With its release, Grace establishes herself as a role model not just for transgender individuals, but people everywhere who feel as if they don't belong. Simultaneously, Against Me! has backed up its reputation as one of the most consistent rock bands active today with yet another loud, powerful punk record. Though it certainly won't be remembered as the best sounding album of 2014 (Shelter already beating it out in that regard), it may well be remembered as the most important.

Key Tracks:
Shelter - "Opale," "Voix Sereines," "Into the Waves"
Transgender Dysphoria Blues - "Transgender Dysphoria Blues," "True Trans Soul Rebel," "Black Me Out"

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