||8 June 2010
Hailing from Gainesville Florida, Against Me! are a straight ahead four-piece guitar band. White Crosses is their fifth album and their second with major label Sire Records.
Against Me! gained the bulk of their fame and notoriety for their 2002 release Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose. This album brimmed with leftist ideals, anarchic politics and an overall message of disaffection. Their low-fi sound and sparse punk arrangements further bolstered their "legit" punk credentials. Songs such as 'Baby I'm an Anarchist' and 'Pints of Guinness Make You Strong' snarled against the establishment in a yelping punk howl reminiscent of the Dropkick Murphys.
But in 2010 Against Me! find themselves facing the slings and arrows that befall 99% of all who claim to be "punk" at some point in their lives. Two words. One hyphen.
"Sell-out? Doesn't that mean that there's no tickets left for your gig?" This I recall was Green Day drummer Trey Cool's response to the same accusation when quizzed by Dave Fanning on their "Insomniac" tour many moons ago. Green Day went from your quirky friend's favourite band to being bigger than the wheel...well almost. It would be a brave man to look into the tea-leaves and predict such greatness for Against Me! I fear.
Punk bands were often derided for selling-out when they signed with a major label. This is not so much in vogue these days, as indie labels continue to go the way of the dodo and even majors struggle to keep their heads above water. What people do get vexed about however is the selling-out of the music. ie) the band's sound becoming overly radio-friendly/mainstream etc. This is the primary accusation being levelled at Against Me! in 2010.
Well there is no doubt that the sound on White Crosses is vastly different from the aforementioned album released in 2002. Gone is singer Tom Gabel's howl, replaced instead with a more melodious and harmonic lilt. The guitars are punchier on the whole, but producer Butch Vig (of Nirvana and Garbage fame) layers them over one another with a bit too much zest for my liking. But that pales into insignificance when compared to the job he does on the vocal harmonies. Holy moley! Such is the level of vocal over-dubbing many of the tracks on White Crosses could be mistaken for punk tunes repackaged by the Glee band. At times the main vocal is so lost in the harmonising the tracks converge into a giant sonic laser-beam. Radio stations are sure to love it.
For my money, "selling-out" of any description is okay, so long as you have good tunes to back it up. I don't care what label you are with, or how long your trombone solo is, so long as the songs are good...or at least catchy. This is where Green Day succeeded. And, at first, White Crosses also succeeds here.
The album opens with the title track boasting a sing-along chorus and some thin anti-church vitriol and is a solid start. Track two is their first single 'I Was a Teenage Anarchist' which effectively operates as the band's two fingers to their critics who chastise them for giving up the good fight.
"I was a teenage anarchist, the revolution was a lie. Do you remember, when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?"
I think the above quote sums up the message of the song quite succinctly. Yes it is a bit on the twee side, but when the chorus zaps your ears it's hard not to be swept along with it. Track three 'Because of the Shame' is a more heartfelt song, but again delivers on the catchiness and at this point you're thinking that Against Me! are a bunch of smart cookies, delivering hummable radio-friendly tunes with a bit more pathos than Blink 182.
But it all goes down hill after that. The tunes cease being catchy and simply start to sound repetitive and laboured. Choruses without impact are shoehorned next to ill-fitting verses and things fall apart. The musical centre cannot hold, no matter how many overdubs are used. In fact the cringeworthy chorus on 'Suffocation' is so overblown it actually sounds like 'Africa' by Toto! I'm not even joking.
There is slight redemption in the album's final track 'Bamboo Bones' where the chorus at least regains some of the early promise to leave you with some satisfaction. That is until you realise that you are the lucky recipient of "four bonus songs from the White Crosses sessions!" Oh Lord.
By the time you've reached track three of the bonus songs and Tom is singing about his dream where Bob Dylan sleeps between himself and his wife in their apartment, you really just want to call the whole thing off. The opening three songs you liked seem so far away they may as well have been on that Reinventing Axl Rose album in 2002.
Less worry about the sound. More worry about the tunes please.
- D. Egan