(By Emily Zemler)…Longevity in music comes through pushing yourself and expanding the possibilities of your sound. This has never been more true for Copeland on their latest effort Blushing, a collection of 11 new tracks that advance and evolve everything the trio of musicians has done up until now. The band, which originally formed in Lakeland, Florida in 2001, has unveiled six albums, spanning from their 2003’s debut Beneath Medicine Tree to 2016’s Ixora. While they began as a rock band, Copeland’s music has explored multiple genres and pulled in various stylistic influences like electronic and symphonic. In the past the musicians have aptly melded these styles, creating a unique amalgam of sounds. This time they wanted to take each sound and style and push it to its logical extreme.
To say musician, author and activist Laura Jane Grace has had a defiant career would be the understatement of the year. Whether being accused of leaving the DIY punk scene to pursue a major label career over a decade ago, or courageously challenging people’s conceptions of gender identity with a bombshell Rolling Stone article, Grace has remained a daring and influential cultural figure in her over 20+ years of creating dynamic art across various mediums. Sure, she’s bound to worry some fans with her decision to press pause on Against Me! to release a more intimate singer-songwriter leaning solo album under the name Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers, but her artistic motivation cast her determination in steel. “In the back of my head I was thinking, ‘f**k all of you, I’m going to do this anyway,’” she says with a smile.
With this conviction came liberation, because few expectations equals total freedom. Indeed on the record’s opening cut, “China Beach,” Grace delivers a bold, lip-curled statement of intent: “Learn to trust yourself, no one else matters / Respect the source and always welcome failure.” And it’s in this spirit—with the help of Against Me! drummer Atom Willard and long-term AM! producer Marc Jacob Hudson on bass—that Bought to Rot, the debut album from Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers, came into existence.
Bought to Rot was written largely in motion—on tour, in Spain, Australia, Amsterdam hotel rooms, and some at home in Chicago. It’s a record scorched with honesty, unapologetically confessional, capturing many moments snipped from Grace’s life and stitched together in song. Although it’s a step and a twist away from Against Me!’s sonic blueprint, there’s still a kinetic punk energy that vibrates throughout. These compositions are looser, stripped, but with a melodic pop immediacy pushing to the fore. “I have my main gig, but I’m still doing this thing,” she continues. “It’s undeniable and it’s really good and here’s the proof … so what are you going to do with that?” Well, it has to go out into the world: via Bloodshot Records, the storied Chicago indie boasting a past & present roster that includes Ryan Adams, Neko Case, Murder by Death, Old 97’s and Justin Townes Earle.
The seeds of this project were initially sown when Grace, Hudson and Willard introduced the band on a small run of dates in 2016 that included Grace delivering impassioned readings of journal entries between stripped-down Against Me! songs, most of which were featured in her critically acclaimed memoir Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. Coming off the cycle for Shape Shift With Me, Against Me!’s latest full-length studio album, and a North American arena tour with Green Day, Grace was asked to perform a Mountain Goats cover on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and it was then that she received a massive sense of renewed momentum overall.
With additional songs penned that felt more stand-alone than a proper Against Me! offering, Bought to Rot resulted in 14 gripping tracks detailing Grace’s fractured relationship with her adopted hometown of Chicago (“I Hate Chicago”), the act of interpersonal acceptance (“The Friendship Song”), all-consuming affection until our ultimate demise [“Apocalypse Now (& Later)”], complicated romance (“The Airplane Song”), and reconciling everything in the end. As a complete body of work, the album stands as the most musically diverse collection of songs Grace has written to date, and is what she affectionately calls her “Scorpio” record – redolent in sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
Additionally inspired in large part by Full Moon Fever, the first album Grace ever owned, Bought to Rot finds her at the same age Tom Petty was when he created his classic solo debut. In light of his recent passing, Grace was even able to pay direct homage to him on the recording. “I bought a ’64 Fender Jaguar off Stan Lynch, drummer of the Heartbreakers, and I always like to think that maybe Petty had picked it up and strummed a couple chords on it,” she says. “I always liked the idea of having my fingers dance on the same fret board as my hero.”
There’s a refreshing sense of variety present on Bought to Rot, an album that features a vast array of musical textures and lyrics that read like separate short stories throughout. “My approach musically to the record was that I wanted it to feel like a mixtape,” Grace recently told Rolling Stone. “Like OK, you’ve got this Nirvana-like song, you’ve got a Cure song. It was musically freeing, in that way, to just be playing whatever was coming to me as I was writing and not having to think about it.” As such, “I Hate Chicago,” a tongue-in-cheek centerpiece to the album that has become a bit of a live favorite to Chicagoans and non-locals alike, finds Grace at her most wry and entertainingly venomous, lambasting the city’s sports teams and revered bands, its festivals and its unfriendly denizens over an Americana-angled jaunt.
Created at a breakneck pace, Bought to Rot is finally here and ready to be consumed & dissected: to be loved, to be hated. It’s an album propelled by a sense of restless, forward motion and the inherent need for Grace to continue evolving as an artist and person the only way she knows how. “I don’t want to write about these same things anymore,” she says. “I need some new sources of inspiration. And I don’t want to be negative. I want to write some positive, happy songs, and I wanted that to be inspired by positive, happy living, too.”
Passionate music followers have been known to trade thoughts on times, places, and musical line-ups they can only fantasize being there to catch. An easy nominee might for one of those would be Sylvio’s bar on Chicago’s West Lake Street in the 1950s and early ‘60s, where Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf traded off as headliners, occasionally shared bills. In those cases, the management definitely wanted an act strong enough to sandwich between those fierce competitors and their enormously skilled and exciting bands to keep both the musical heat and customers in place, and for that, the choice would often be house regulars Elmore James and His Broomdusters. Elmore’s slashing slide guitar and explosive vocal attack were famous in themselves, and had produced the hit “Dust My Broom,” that gave his band its name.
That celebrated song, and its lasting riff, had been taught to Elmore by legend-to-be Robert Johnson, but Johnson’s own record was long out of circulation when James’ electrified version became a hit in 1952, and remained so until 1970; the hundreds of blues revival and rock versions heard since were picked up directly from Elmore, though he didn’t live to know it, having died from a heart attack at age 45, in 1963
The style of guitar and vocal attack stuck because Elmore’s turns on older blues, and songs he came up with himself, were flat out electrifying in all senses of the term. As rock ‘n roll gave way to harder rock, his vocal and instrumental example became all the more a model, for all the more performers. He’d played with a full band (horns sometimes, electric always) as early as 1939, when that was an utterly novel way to present intense, personal Delta blues numbers; his songs and arrangements were built to work in hot band situations. When you hear country traditionalist Jamey Johnson’s take on the now standard blues “It Hurts Me Too,” you can be sure it’s Elmore James’ sturdy and adaptable song being saluted—though history shows that Elmore had adapted it from Tampa Red’s “When Things Go Wrong With You.’ Elmore’s music sticks, instructs, and sets a pace.
That’s evident throughout this salute album— which puts such often-revisited James numbers as “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “Look on Yonder Wall,” and “Person to Person” alongside songs known mainly by James aficionados, gets them into the hands of masterful interpreters from out of the blues, soul, country, pop and Americana arenas, as far-ranging as Tom Jones, Rodney Crowell, Keb Mo, Deborah Bonham of the rocking Bonham family, and sisters Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer. The set reveals something fresh in the process: Elmore James contributed more than riffs and intensity to American music, he left a body of memorable, adaptable songs that can be renewed again and again in surprising ways. They’re that sturdy—and no less electrifying for it.