Review: Pandemic inspires Laura Jane Grace with new songs

Laura Jane Grace, “Stay Alive” (Polyvinyl Record Co.)

Between life and death in these strange days comes the welcome voice of Laura Jane Grace.

The Against Me! singer and guitarist has taken a break from both her superb punk band and her side project, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers. She’s alone in a Chicago studio for the pandemic-inspired “Stay Alive,” except for producer Steve Albini.

“This only feels like the death of everything,” she sings in the first song. It concludes 13 songs later with the raw-sung plea: “Please stay alive/please survive!”

Recorded in just days in July, the album is somewhat of a mixed bag, but always fascinating, lifted by lyrics that are equal parts opaque, raw and funny. “I am a haunted swimming pool/I am emptied out and drained,” she sings on the opener, “The Swimming Pool Song.” Later, you’ll run to a dictionary to try to understand what “petrified polymorphs” are.

Grace misses traveling — and, in particular Portugal — in “The Calendar Song,” but is ambivalent about travel on “Shelter in Place,” where she notes: “There’s always someone dying to leave/Where you’re dying to get to.” The album also includes what can only be described as an anti-Trump scream in “Hanging Tree,” with the line: “You can’t trust a man with hair like that.”

Some songs are reminiscent of the Ramones and some are almost just fragments. Some tunes are insanely heavy for just an acoustic guitar and a voice (the way she snarls the word “croissant” in one song is pure punk). Many feel like diary entries, filled with regret. The cover image of an ashtray filled with old joints may lull you into thinking its a soft collection. It’s not.

Whatever you do, don’t call it an acoustic set. Grace has vowed that if you do so, “my six-string strumming ghost will haunt 10 generations of your family every night of their lives with bedroom busking.”

Standouts include the Joan Jett-like “SuperNatural Possession” and the Celtic-flavored “The Magic Point.” Of all the music composed and inspired by COVID-19, “Stay Alive” is worthy of a listen. While wearing a mask, mind you.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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