Dyke Drama: Up Against the Bricks (2016) Review

Flipping through a 1985 issue of the Advocate I impulse-bought from eBay, I noticed a short blurb reviewing Hüsker Dü’s album New Day Rising, which came out that same year. The reviewer wrote that “as far as I know, there’s nothing gay about [Hüsker Dü], unless you count their ferocious, unforgiving optimism.” Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould is in fact gay--though he would not come out publicly until the 1990s, years after the band had broken up--so the reviewer was perceptive in noting something queer in Mould’s emotionally raw blue-collar punk. The chasm between queerness and gritty, heartland rock music is not as wide as one might be led to believe, and it is bridged by precisely the desperate hopefulness and unabashed emotionality described by the Advocate reviewer. But as much as myself and other butch lesbians admire Bruce Springsteen’s tender masculinity, and as often as queer and trans punks emphatically sing along to the Replacements’ “Androgynous,” few LGBT-fronted bands have emerged since Hüsker Dü that embody the humble, persevering spirit of rust-belt and midwestern rock music.

Enter Dyke Drama. Dyke Drama is the solo project of Sadie Switchblade, the prodigally talented musician best known as the frontwoman of the short-lived but much-loved hardcore punk band GLOSS. In GLOSS (“Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit”), Switchblade embraced cathartic political anger, scream-singing about trans women taking over the world and the necessity of violent resistance. Dyke Drama is no less revolutionary, so long as one understands that for marginalized people, the personal is inherently political. With this project, Switchblade delves into the traumas and daily frustrations that impact life for many trans women and other LGBT people. Some of Dyke Drama’s songs reference experiences unique to trans womanhood, but most of Switchblade’s lyrics--about heartbreak, loneliness, and ennui--would not be out of place on a Springsteen or Lucinda Williams album. Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” which Dyke Drama covers towards the end of their 2016 album, Up Against the Bricks, could pass for Switchblade’s own writing.

Up Against the Bricks oozes with emotion and poignant lyricism, but it’s also a tightly produced and incredibly infectious rock album. Opener “Rolling Tears” begins with a twangy fifteen-second guitar riff followed by a breakneck drum fill and a primal yell reminiscent of the one that kicks off the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.” This introduction sets the album’s stylistic and emotional tone: unflinching and achy, but equally energizing. The album’s second track, “Crying in a Bathroom Stall” employs pop-punk-esque chugging guitar to imbue the titular scene of despair with defiant strength. Most of the song’s lyrics describe the almost universal experience of romantic heartbreak, but the final line gives “Crying” specificity; “Do all tall girls die alone?” Switchblade asks twice over the final guitar riffs. The line, which refers euphemistically to trans girls as “tall girls,” succinctly connects Switchblade’s personal emotional pain to the culturally embedded undesirability assigned to trans women. This feeling of lesser-ness is expanded upon in the words to “Cis Girls,” the album’s penultimate track: “You say I'm second to none / but I'm still second to one, / One of those girls.”

The heartache expressed in “Crying” is wedded with a desperate hopefulness in Up Against the Bricks’ title track. The song’s verse meanders over a wounded guitar melody, and its catchy chorus comes in triumphantly with heavy guitar chugs. “Is it too much to ask for a moment that lasts for / long enough to get it right? For you to keep me up all night?” Switchblade pleads in the chorus, “Is it too late for dreaming? To go back to believing? / To push me up against the bricks, grab my skull and kiss my lips.” The poignancy in her voice makes us hope that it isn’t too late, even as we sense that it probably is. Alongside the desperate desire for love in these lyrics is a dark shadow of aggression, even violence--having one’s “skull” grabbed and pushed against a brick wall does not necessarily conjure up images of tenderness. This forceful imagery lays bare the abuse, or threat thereof, that has defined the lives of too many trans women.

Other topics covered in the anthems that populate Up Against the Bricks include the sleaziness of the music industry (“You Can’t Count on Me”) and the alienation of growing up in a neglectful and dysfunctional family (“Day-For-Night”). These subjects, along with the rest of the album’s lyrical content, compose a clear vision; one that connects the personal with the political to generate an all-encompassing pissed-off-ness that remains bold and self-assured enough to not stray into bitterness.

Up Against the Bricks ends with the devastating “Some Days I Load My Gun,” a stripped-down ballad of suicidal ideation. It’s raw and heartbreaking, but there’s a note of hope in it too. “Some days I load my .22,” Switchblade sings, “but I don't want to give up on you / sweet people in my life / I don't wanna make anyone cry.” The lyrics acknowledge and pay tribute to the presence of a loving support system, even as they show that loved ones aren’t always enough to keep out the dark thoughts. The song--and album--ends with the fading in of a droning organ and the repeated line, “Is there anyone?” The line is sung through tinny, distant vocal effects, evoking the sensation of isolation it describes. It’s a bummer of a way to end an album, but Switchblade isn’t trying to craft a narrative of straightforward perseverance that inevitably ends with happiness or success. She’s depicting pain and grief and joy and desire in the arbitrary pattern in which life throws them at us, particularly those of us who are marginalized along multiple axes. Dyke Drama embraces its similarity to older bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements--the album is labeled on bandcamp with the tag “Westerberg” in reference to the Replacements’ frontman--but rather than being derivative, Up Against the Bricks carries these bands’ tough and tender spirit into uncharted territory.


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