One of the most anticipated albums of 2014 is Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! The rock quartet took to the stage in Chicago at Riot Fest last year after lead singer Laura Jane Grace revealed she is transgender. Although the whole set is not a testimony to this, the theme and the band's punk sneer are present in the forefront. "True Trans Soul Rebel" captures Grace's feelings of misplacement, becoming a relatable anthem about alienation. The topic of gender identity is not new to the band. Grace writes about this on Against Me!'s previous cuts "Searching for a Former Clarity" and "The Ocean."
Against Me!'s latest still has a familiar blazing rock sensibility, as heard on the daydream-of-fitting-in "Drinking with the Jocks" and the morbid "Dead Friend." Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a brave, bold and insightful statement and is out now via Total Treble.
Canadian female rock duo The Pack A.D. returns with the excellent Do Not Engage, which will be out on Nettwerk on Tuesday, Jan. 28. The set is a superb progression from the remarkable Unpersons, courtesy of the strong tracks "Airborne," "Creepin' Jenny" and "Animal." Last year's teaser EP, Some Sssongs, contains "Battering Ram," which opens with Becky Black's fiery vocals. Stay tuned to the entire set, especially for the gorgeous closer "Needles." With its solid, badass female rock bite, Do Not Engage sets a high standard for the rest of the year's releases. The Pack A.D. comes to Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., on Thursday, March 6.
New York nightspot CBGB served as a launching pad for many influential artists, such as Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. On Saturday, Feb. 15, Tribute to Punk: CBGBs to X-Ray Spex will take place at Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. For tickets and more information, please visit www.oldtownschool.org .
On Sunday, Feb. 9, CBS will air the special The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles. This marks 50 years to the day since the Fab Four appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Eurythmics, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Maroon 5, John Mayer and Keith Urban will be performing.
Many divas and LGBT artists have covered material by The Beatles, including The Breeders, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, George Michael, Bette Midler, The Runaways, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Tina Turner. My favorite remakes are Nina Simone's take on "Here Comes the Sun," Alison Mosshart's "Tomorrow Never Knows" and Natalie Cole's epic live rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
Tony and Grammy winner Jennifer Holliday makes a triumphant comeback with The Song Is You. Here, the vocal powerhouse puts her soulful stamp on the classics "At Last" and the title track. Having delved into gospel music, Holliday belts out the uplifting "Nobody Does It Better" and "Love Is on the Way." The set is a beautiful blend of jazz and R&B, showing the veteran's passion and emotion in her delivery. The Song Is You acts as a reminder why so many contestants on singing competition shows try to tackle Holliday's signature from Dreamgirls "And I'm Telling You, I'm Not Going."
In my year-in-review column, I gushed over James Arena's collection First Ladies of Disco. The New York-based writer has another superb anthology on the era with First Legends of Disco. Here, he expands the scope to get a fuller perspective on the influential time with input from producers, bands, DJs and of course divas behind multiple disco staples. This installment on the dance craze features commentary from Randy Jones of the Village People, Bonnie Pointer, as well as members of dance music hit-makers Lime, Machine, Sister Sledge and Taste of Honey. This year we celebrate the 40-year anniversary of disco and Arena's latest provides a valuable view to this period.
Potpourri of Pearls has the first must-see video of the year with "Nico." Here, an '80s gay porn about hair-metal bands is edited to a PG-13 rating to accompany the song. The end result is camp and hilarious. The track itself seems plucked from the Reagan-era too with apparent influences from Human League and Spandau Ballet thanks to its euphoric chorus and '80s-inspired keyboards. Potpourri of Pearls' sophomore outing, We Went to Heaven, is due out on Tuesday, Feb. 11.
I recently learned that Benjamin Curtis, from the independent bands Secret Machines and School of Seven Bells, lost his battle against cancer at age 35. School of Seven Bells started off as a trio with ethereal sounds and magical harmonies from sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. The magical vocals evoke the results of Dido and Sarah McLachlan being paired together. When I first saw the video to "Half Asleep," I did not realize the singers were twins; I thought it was an allusion to parallel lives or to reality versus a dream world. Ultimately becoming a duo, School of Seven Bells left us with three albums and an EP, highlighted by the celestial, left-of-center singles "My Cabal" and "I L U," as well as a clever cover of Siouxsie & the Banshees' "Kiss Them for Me." Scissor Sisters provided a remix to "Lafaye." I was lucky enough to see School of Seven Bells twice in concert.
Noteworthy new releases:
A Great Big WorldIs Anybody out There?, Jan. 21
Above & BeyondAcoustic, Jan. 28
Against Me!Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Jan. 21
Amy RayGoodnight Tender —1/21
Cowboy JunkiesThe Kennedy Suite, Jan. 21
Jennifer HollidayThe Song Is You, Jan. 21
Lisa StansfieldSeven, Feb. 4
Marissa NadlerJuly, Feb. 4
Potpourri of PearlsWe Went to Heaven, Feb. 11
Sophie Ellis-BextorWanderlust, Jan. 21
The Pack A.D.Do Not Engage, Jan. 28
Toni Braxton & BabyfaceLove, Marriage & Divorce, Feb. 4