On ‘Hole in My Head,’ Laura Jane Grace Gives It Her All | Exclaim!


Trailblazing powerhouse Laura Jane Grace returns with an even stronger set of ‘50s-biting rock songs on her second full-length solo album, confronting aging, dysphoria, sobriety and her own legacy. While 2020’s Stay Alive felt limited by pandemic and production (Grace herself admitted that Steve Albini would “get annoyed if [she] did more than two takes”), Hole in My Head is an open invitation to a wild romp through Grace’s psyche. 

There’s some sonic connection to the folk punk that fuels Against Me! on songs like “Dysphoria Hoodie,” plus some wonderfully modern motorik rock on “Birds Talk Too” that feels in conversation with bands like Parquet Courts. Grace’s voice, as always, is untouchable — whether she whispers, croons or shouts, she’s singular in her ability to gauge the precise pressure that her music needs.

Hole in My Head supposedly began with a haircut. Grace was asked to shave her head to prepare for the completion of her full body and head tattoo by Japanese artists Kenji and Gakkin Alucky. The trio had worked together for many years, transforming Grace’s body and culminating in the roses and birds of prey now inked on her scalp. The experience was an emotional and creative catalyst in more ways than one — Alucky gifted Grace a black semi-hollow Gretsch guitar upon the work’s completion, and she promptly wrote one her best tunes, “Birds Talk Too.” Based on a crunchy, gasoline-soaked riff, the song describes a locale in austere terms, “They don’t play Red Hot Chili Peppers in places like this.” It’s an infectious and upbeat vibe, and the grit is dialed in just right as she sings over her own backing vocals, “I’ve got my mind set on you!” It’s a barn burner.

The equally energetic “I’m Not a Cop” wears ‘50s rockabilly swing firmly on its sleeve, complete with a baritone barbershop backup vocal. Grace goes for her full scream in the last 20 seconds, and it’s sublime. “Punk Rock in Basements” is a rosy look back at the beginnings of her career, and it lives in that same electric guitar world, with a little more narrative and a little less fire. The title track sounds fantastic too, if slightly over polished. Here, especially, it’s confusing why some of these full band rock tunes weren’t simply recorded with Against Me! (especially when Drive-By Truckers’ bassist Matt Patton was brought in to thump along, reinforcing Grace’s drumming, guitar and overdubbed vocals.) Grace is a perfectly competent drummer, but it’s hard not to miss the propulsion that her main band provides.

When Grace goes acoustic on “Dysphoria Hoodie,” it’s a satisfying breather between the blasts of electric guitar. Longtime fans will recognize the song as a mainstay from her live sets, and it’s an honest, bare look at the conflicting dysphoria and comfort felt a decade into transition. While “Tacos and Toast” is a cozy, country delight about a relaxing Saturday that develops a sharper edge as it moves along, some of Hole in My Head’s more low key tunes fail to match even the too-slick immediacy of its louder rock songs.

That said, the record’s showstopper is “Give Up the Ghost.” Just Grace’s bell-like rasp and her acoustic guitar, it’s a poignant reflection on her career and life, wondering if she’s got more gas left in the tank. “I’m standing at the center of the universe / Screaming at God, I’m not done / But I think it’s time that I give up the ghost,” she bellows. She repeats these words four times at record’s end, and the question lingers in the dead air once she’s finished. Between this tearjerker and the explosive performances on the album’s first half, Grace is still giving it her all. 
 



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