Recordings | October 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, October 2015 Issue.


Photo courtesy of

Against Me!
23 Live Sex Acts
Total Treble/INgrooves Music Group | 4stars

It’s not exactly like Laura Jane Grace has ever had a “laid back” phase, but the rush of activity and attention that came when she came out as transgender has been a whirlwind, even for somebody who’s used to global fame. She kicked off 2014 with the release of future-classic Transgender Dysphoria Blues, followed by a world tour as well as a television series, “True Trans” (editorial humblebrag disclosure: I’m in it for a bit). Now that extraordinary year is commemorated in a new live album, 23 Live Sex Acts, a record as raw, powerful and uncompromising as its cover.

And yeah, what a cover: severed sex organ on a plate, in the style of a lurid old newspaper advertisement, claiming the show was recorded “live at the Gritty Clit.” Wal-mart featured display placement assured! It’s a graphical representation of Grace’s dark wit and lyrical honesty. She’s never shied away from the difficult, awkward or even lurid aspects of the trans experience (or the public perception of same). On Transgender Dysphoria Blues it was a revelation, but here, presented in live form, the songs take on a raw power and urgency that transcend their studio versions. Trans anthems like “True Trans Soul Rebel” burns with a blinding, righteous fury, while even old hits like Records_23sex“Thrash Unreal” take on a new edge.

It’s especially moving to hear Grace revisit 2007’s “The Ocean,” from Against Me’s Sire Records debut. “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman,” she sang then. “My mother once told me she would have named me Laura. I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.” It took courage to write those words in the guise of a male punk frontman; it was like a prayer for even the possibility of escape. To hear Grace sing them now, having come through the fire and become her fully realized self, is not only an extraordinarily emotional moment of catharsis, it should give anyone, anywhere, the hope that no matter how long the odds feel, anything is truly possible if you refuse to give up. And, 23 Live Sex Acts is an amazing document of survival and triumph.

Years & Years
Interscope | 4stars

The accolades keep coming for Years & Years. The British electro/dance trio was picked by MTVU as the 2015 “Artist To Watch,” Buzzfeed called them “the next big thing in pop,” and the BBC dubbed them “The Sound of 2015.” (Previous winner: Sam Smith. Just sayin.’) Fronted by the willowy, sensual, baby-faced Olly Alexander, Years & Years is a captivating band that combines shimmering pop sensibilities with an uncommon gift for complex storylines. On Communion, Alexander has a lot to say about relationships – gay, straight and otherwise – and his bandmates provide some truly gorgeous sounds.

Records_YearsYearsCommunionAlexander’s “coming out” has been a low-key affair, but the added perspective and overt male-male pronouns give new weight and resonance to songs like “Real” and the outstanding “Memo” (about a heartbreaking breakup between Alexander and an ex) and the more universal “Take Shelter.” Alexander’s lithe R&B vocal styling is tender, nuanced, filled with longing and a kind of achy desperation. “Nobody’s gonna tell me I need help,” he sings. “You hold me and I close my eyes…I’m shy…can I be what you like?”

“King,” a monster pop hit in the United Kingdom, swirls with a dizzying, hypnotic synth riff. “They say it’s easy to leave you behind – I don’t wanna try,” Alexander sings, recalling a bit of Michael Jackson on “PYT” for a moment. The chorus comes crashing in with a huge cinematic flourish, as Alexander spins another tale of attraction, tension and uncertainty. He’s a powerful performer who conveys deep emotion with a casual gesture. It’s glorious to live in a time when chart-topping pop music no longer has to censor or blunt same-sex attraction, and Communion is a limitlessly great pop record that deserves your attention.

FKA Twigs
Young Turks |5stars

Once in a while you get an artist who’s absolutely willing to push deep into the unknown, to follow Records_FKATwigswhatever creative impulse strikes strongest, no matter where it goes. FKA Twigs’ third EP, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”) does that and more. It’s essential listening and should, if taken as directed, completely blow your mind.

Nothing about FKA Twigs has been ordinary; this isn’t basic pop music about varying shallow shades of love. Like PJ Harvey before her, FKA Twigs is strongly connected to the idea of power: Power in relationships, power between men and women and the power of desire itself. It can be uncomfortable, as in “I’m Your Doll,” a seemingly self-objectifying statement that twists upon itself until, in the video, Twigs turns up in the bed with her own blow-up doll. And it gets weird from there. The short film, in fact, is essential and revelatory, almost inseparable from the music.

“In Time” finds her dealing with the primal forces of pregnancy and cursing her lover, over a stark beat breakdown and an almost psychedelic warp in her personal universe. The buzzing, eerie “Glass & Patron” finds her giving birth to background singers in the back of a van. The finale, “Mothercreep,” slinks to its angular conclusion with a daring, gutsy reversal of expectations. It’s a rare day when an artist commands music and film, combined, with such power. Over its five staggering songs, M3LL155X packs in more artistry than lesser talents manage in their entire careers.