June 6, 2010

Album Review: Against Me's White Crosses

Against Me! has been around for more than a decade now, but their history as a band consists of two entirely polarizing eras. As a solo folk punk project born in Gainesville, FL by frontman Tom Gabel, Against Me! quickly gained a cult following playing throughout the region's DIY basement scene. Their debut, Reinventing Axl Rose, saw the addition of a full band, electric guitars and widespread acclaim with punk fans thanks to the track, "Baby, I'm an Anarchist!" However, all that political punk love turned to intense criticism upon gaining a larger fan base and signing to a larger independent punk label. Their tour van's tires were slashed, its exterior graffitied and war on Against Me! had been declared.

Feeling betrayed by a scene they cultivated, it didn't take long for Against Me! to stick it to their critics and jump in bed with major label, Sire Records. The end result was 2007's New Wave, a critically acclaimed power pop punk record made glossy by famed alt-rock producer, Butch Vig. And so that being said, it only makes sense to critique Against Me!'s White Crosses as the band they've become since New Wave.

The biggest criticism of White Crosses is that it's very difficult not to draw comparisons to New Wave upon listening. Many of these cuts sound like they were written as responses to what's heard on New Wave. The album opens just the same with its title track, but that same energetic urgency is swapped out with a subtle, bar punk jam. "Because of the Shame" is White Crosses' intended stadium anthem centerpiece, much like Against Me! set out to do with "Trash Unreal" on New Wave. The song itself bears a striking resemblance to Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender," so much that it may have been more complimentary if they had just covered the track altogether. The poppy love song, "We're Breaking Up," is to White Crosses as "Borne On the FM Waves Of the Heart" was to New Wave. The difference between the two is that this time Gabel's vocals alone don't sell the song's sincerity the same way they did when Tegan and Sara's Tegan Quinn guested on the latter.

Not everything Against Me! has done repeats itself on White Crosses, however. Among the album's strongest songs is "High Pressure Low," a tracked based around a Replacements-meets-Smiths guitar riff that has Tom Gabel melodically bantering about a world crashing down from all directions. The steadily rocking lead single, "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," is another kiss off to their critics, with a tongue-in-cheek title that questions the point of anarchism if it only serves to create a set of guidelines and expectations by those who practice it. And who's to say Against Me! have abandoned their former selves? The heavy hearted folk tune, "Ache With Me" strips the band down to its bare bones and leaves Gabel as lyrically open-minded to owning up to his faults as anyone. Meanwhile, "Suffocation" and "Bamboo Bones" are both memorable anthems (thanks in part to Butch Vig, who is back for another round of sheen production) that will only help Against Me! secure more bodies at their shows as the band's popularity increases within the mainstream scene.

Based on the similarities it shares with New Wave's best moments and the signature sounds of  Springsteens and Tom Petty, it appears Against Me! is intent on becoming a household name. What may have been a more pleasing result from White Crosses is if the Florida four-piece stepped a bit more out of its comfort zone instead of relying on tired and tried formulas.Yet, for a punk band that has built a career on change, it would be preemptive to assume Against Me! has dried the well of surprises. White Crosses' positive moments mark small strides toward great success, and here's hoping they're willing to take the plunge next time around.

Against Me's White Crosses will be released June 8, 2010 on Sire Records.

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