Whenever a good punk band delivers a live album that actually captures that live energy, it's worth noting. This is one of those times.
Against Me! have released a live album before, but 2006’s Americans Abroad!!! Against Me!!! Live in London!!! came a year prior to the band’s major label debut (and breakthrough album) New Wave. It was also way, way before frontwoman Laura Jane Grace admitted to the world that she was a transgender woman and the group released the critically acclaimed Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Also, by the time of this recording in 2014, the band featured a completely different rhythm section than during the previous live set. So while live albums from punk bands are often a dodgy prospect, certainly enough time and history has passed in the band to make 23 Live Sex Acts seem worthwhile.
And worthwhile it turns out to be. The album culls songs from throughout their 2014 tour and reassembles them as a pseudo-performance. There are points, after multiple listens, where the seams start to show through, but essentially the record feels like one complete Against Me! concert. While they have expanded their sound to encompass a broader range of styles over their past few albums, Against Me! is still essentially a punk band. There isn’t gonna be a lot of experimentation with the songs in the live setting, so the energy is what matters. That energy comes through exceedingly well here, and the setlist is expansive and well-chosen. Those two elements make 23 Live Sex Acts a strong addition to the band’s discography and not just an afterthought.
The album begins with nearly a minute of a galloping drumbeat and guitar feedback before Grace appears, saying “Let’s fuck shit up,” and launching into the catchier-than-you’d-expect-from-its-title “FUCKMYLIFE666.” Her voice, with its signature scraped-throat roughness, is in fine form and the band is tight and precise. Next up is “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong”, a classic from the band’s first album, Reinventing Axl Rose. Things go smoothly for the band through “Cliché Guevara”, “True Trans Soul Rebel”, and “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” before falling apart halfway through “New Wave.”
Since Against Me! cherry-picked these tracks from multiple performances, they clearly decided that Grace’s one-sided interaction with a security guard was worth putting on the record, despite the busted performance. First up, there’s an aside between verses where she says, “Don’t be a bummer, security guard, he’s just dancing.” A few seconds later, she stops the song entirely to say, “Hey, don’t kick that fucking kid out! Let him stay.” It goes on from here for about 90 seconds, as security tries to eject a fan despite Grace’s protestations. Eventually, it sounds like Grace loses the argument despite threatening to bring the guard up onstage and forcing him to play guitar. She goes on to facetiously tell the crowd that no one is allowed to have a good time for the rest of the night, “No cheering!” “Everybody sit down”, one of the other band members interjects.
It’s interesting to hear Grace talk on the album. Her interactions cover a range of emotions. Her introduction to the revised lyrics of “Pretty Girls (The Mover)” finds her explaining that she wanted to reflect a more direct and honest sensibility than we she wrote the song. But there’s also a silly moment when she hears someone mention a Slip’n’Slide and says she would crowd surf to the back of the hall and use it right now if they had one. Her introduction to “High Pressure Low” illustrates either a weird sense of humor or the disconnect between a songwriter’s intent and what the audience actually hears. She says, “This is a song about an 8-ball of cocaine, an ounce of weed, and the open road.” The actual lyrics to the song mention none of those things, instead focusing on an approaching hurricane, a sense of impending doom, and the decisions made by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Finally, there’s the more mundane platitudes, like near the end of the record when she praises the crowd for their positive energy or when she says, “That was fuckin’ good” directly after the performance of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”
To be fair, that performance of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is pretty fuckin’ good. In an album full of energetic performances, this in particular stands out as one of the best. The band is on point and Grace’s delivery is even more intense than on the album. Drummer Atom Willard is noticeably good here, playing the hell out of the song’s punked-up country beat. The band’s other hooky songs also fare exceedingly well on the record. “Don’t Lose Touch” has one of Against Me!’s catchiest basslines and choruses, and Grace and guitarist James Bowman knock it out of the park on the chorus’s extended “touch” that actually sounds like “Whooooa oh ohhh oh ohhh”. The angry sing along “Black Me Out” manages to combine the band’s more intense darker material with a big ass refrain that’s easy to belt out.
If there’s one place the band falls down on 23 Live Sex Acts, it’s on their breakthrough single “Thrash Unreal.” Apparently Grace now regularly sings the song an octave lower than it was originally recorded. This is a bizarre choice since she sings everything else with the same high-pitched, throat-shredding passion with which it was originally recorded. But for whatever reason, after the opening line, she drops her voice low and keeps it there for the rest of the song. This doesn’t rob the song of its hook, but it does dampen the intensity. Bowman is the MVP here with his backing singing, doing a good 50% of the vocals at the original pitch and restoring a good portion of the passion to the song. At one point bassist Inge Johansson also tries to pick up the slack while Bowman is doing the “Ba ba ba” chorus, but his microphone is turned so low that he’s barely audible, and what we can hear makes it clear that he doesn’t really have the upper range to pull it off.
For the less catchy material, the band relies on its general intensity. So chuggers like “Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists”, “Miami”, and “How Low” work due to their heavy grooves and Grace’s angry delivery. The gang vocals on “Miami” are very strong, and one assumes the crowd was also shouting along. But very little crowd noise bleeds through during the songs, so we’re mostly limited to hearing them before and after.
The one place the crowd plays a significant role (Besides the “New Wave” fiasco) is during the three-minute break after “The Ocean” at the end of the main set and when the band returns for the encore. About 30 seconds before the track ends, the audience starts spontaneously singing “Sink, Florida, Sink”, which leads, of course, into Against Me! playing it. In contrast to the album version of the song, which is largely acoustic, the band doesn’t bother to turn down their guitars, playing through it with full distortion. The record closes out with another Reinventing Axl Rose classic, “We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules". And sure, Americans Abroad!!! ended the same way, but it’s a hell of a way to finish a show. It’s a cathartic sing along, and this is the only place on the album that the audience can actually be heard during a song, since the band drops all of the instruments out mid-song with only handclaps accompanying the chorus. Also, this version of the song features Willard’s distinctly different take on the drum part, which sets it apart from both the studio and previous live edition of the track.
Longtime Against Me! fans may quibble with the tracks on 23 Live Sex Acts, but really, pretty much all of the band’s heavy hitters are here. The album is mixed very nicely, with all the instruments and (nearly) all of the vocals audible, and, at 83 minutes long, resembles a full show and not just a cut-down version of one. Because of the length and crispness of the recording, this is a set that could also double as a strong “Best Of” compilation and also a good introduction to the band for the curious. Which is just about everything you’d want in a live album.