Monday, March 15, 2010

Against Me! - White Crosses (2010) // Cobra Skulls - American Rubicon (2010)

Against Me! - White Crosses (2010, Sire)
Genre: Punk

So, Against Me!'s new album leaked. Already, I'm sure the howls of "Sellout!" are reverberating across the internets. Apparently, Against Me! sold out when they signed with Sire. Or when they signed with Fat. Or when they moved out of frontman Tom Gabel's basement. I'm not sure.

To be fair to the fans that hate what the band's become, Against Me! won over its fanbase with two gritty, screamy, raw, hard-rocking folk-punk albums with song titles like, "Baby, I'm An Anarchist." (BTW, I find that song really fucking obnoxious* unless I read it as way beyond tongue-in-cheek and well into dripping-with-sarcasm. Yep, I'm making no friends here.) Then, with Searching For A Former Clarity, their first album with Fat Wreck Chords, a giant in the world of independent punk labels, they incorporated dance-punk into their sound, and New Wave, their first record with major label Sire, was even slicker and got them mainstream radio airplay. (Horrors!) White Crosses is even more slick than New Wave was.

I'll state my biases: my first Against Me! record was Searching and I adored it. I loved the balance between accessibility and grit, I loved the intelligent, politically charged lyrics (you can find a lot of the latter in punk, not so much of the former), I loved the self-deprecation, I loved how an album this morose could be so catchy and danceable and that it could be dark without making me feel like slitting my wrists.

Meanwhile, I can't stand Reinventing Axl Rose, which most fans adore. I find it literally unlistenable. I've given it a few tries, tried it again today at work, and there are really interesting songs in there. Unfortunately, they're buried under the kind of screaming that had me resisting the urge to gouge out my brain with my tiny, office-provided staple remover. Apparently, screaming like that is cathartic to boys in the throes of puberty, but not so much my thing.

That said: White Crosses disappoints me, and I hate to say that. This is definitely mainstream pop/rock-meets-punk and that bothers me not at all; I don't mind them getting slicker, sounding more radio-friendly, as long as I'm enjoying it. But I was hoping for more dance-punk like "Stop" or "Unprotected Sex," or blistering punk like "Miami" or wistful numbers like "Ocean," and instead this all feels a bit '80s and power-pop-y in a way that just doesn't work for me. It sounds like Sire is trying to remake them into The Killers. And I hate to say that, because I hate when people accuse these guys of selling out, but with this album... I can kind of see where that's coming from.

That said, while I'd feel naive to assume that the move to a major label has nothing whatsoever to do with this further shift in the band's sound, I also don't think it would be fair to accuse an artist as obviously thoughtful and self-reflective as Gabel to throw it all in for the big bucks. And you can tell that they're trying to stretch on this album, that they don't want to be solely known as Those Angsty Ranting Leftist Folk-Punks. Gabel also seems to be trying to pare down his normally verbose lyrics, attempt writing in a way that's a little more direct, which seems like a natural path to take... I can see how a songwriter might worry that they were hiding in all of those words, that it was coming across as affected. I miss it -- it's part of what made the band interesting and weird, Gabel trying to spit out these thoughtful, cutting lyrics as fast as he could, all the words barely able to fit in his mouth. But I can understand moving away from that for reasons that have nothing to do with wanting to take a dive into a giant money-pit.

One of the biggest disappointments is "I Was A Teenage Anarchist." With all the drama regarding the band's rise, I was eager to see how Gabel would respond, but as a comeback it's just... nowhere near as complicated or thoughtful as I was expecting. The chorus, "Do you remember / when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?" is something I feel like I could hear from any artist. That stamp that made this band interesting and different just isn't there. ETA: Gabel also says of his angry former fans, "they set their rifle sights on me," and to hear a songwriter like this sound whiny is so very, very wrong. /ETA

(Re: Gabel going from "Baby, I'm an anarchist / you're a spineless liberal" to signing with Sire... Speaking as a chick whose politics have been creeping ever-further in the radical and anarcho direction, I still gotta say: it's easy to be an anarchist when you're young. Anyone expecting this dude to have the exact same politics now as he did when he was playing solo shows in his basement is smoking some pretty strong crack.)

The standout is "Ache With Me," a slow, wistful, introspective ballad. Gabel's voice is quite lovely in it.

I want to say: there's a lot of you out there who I think would really love this album, especially if you came to the band with New Wave, or if you've never been introduced to the band before. These are strong songs, and they're pretty (I know that's enough to make some punks vomit right now, but I like my punk pretty. Suck it.) For me, it's not quite doing it, but it might be a grower. If you hate everything post-As The Eternal Cowboy, this will make you puke, but if you're new to this band, it might be your thing.

ETA: Forgot to say, and maybe it's bad I remembered, 'cause it kills me to say this, but: after listening to this, part of me wonders if these guys really are just blowing where the wind blows... '80s vaguely-Springsteen-y stuff here because The Gaslight Anthem blew up (and ironically, everyone would always mention them in the same breath as AM! when they came out), dance-punk on Searching because Franz Ferdinand was big, and (to all of you old-school fans who think the first two albums are the only good stuff), screaming and gritty on the debut LP because that's what the kids like. Or maybe, like any band, they're influenced by their contemporaries and playing with different sounds. Maybe a combination. Who knows. /ETA

Tangentially related: On Tom Gabel's solo album, there's a song where he confesses how jealous he is of an unnamed singer's talent, how much he admires this artist, how he wishes he could be half as brave, half as eloquent, half as honest. It's really touching.

But it would make my life if it turned out that he was singing about Barry Manilow.

To sum up: Poppy rock, bright and accessible, a little reminiscent of The Killers on Sam's Town. These guys are accomplished musicians and songwriters, making for a pleasant listen, but nothing grabbed me, made me sit up and take notice, and this is from a band that used to grab me by the guts and wouldn't let go. Old-school fans will hate it; New Wave and completely new fans might very well dig it quite a bit and feel differently than I did.

Standout track: Ache With Me

RIYL: The Killers, Gaslight Anthem, The Dropkick Murphys.

*Okay, it depends on my mood. Sometimes, it's right-on and awesome.

Cobra Skulls - American Rubicon (2009, Red Scare)
Genre: Punk, Folk-Punk

Cobra Skull's previous full-length, Sitting Army, made this a band to watch. They sound a bit like Against Me!, especially in Devin Peralta's (excellent, endearing) vocals, though he's less gruff. Like Against Me!, they deal in politically-charged folk-punk; however, the Cobra Skulls' sound is more upbeat and with a a little more of a sense of humor. They've also got a splash of cowpunk in their sound and (possibly I'm smoking crack here) even a pinch of ragtime.

Unforunately, like Against Me!'s new offering, American Rubicon also disappoints me, though I'm still holding out hope that this album's a grower. (Three spins in, though, and I'm not sure.) Also like Against Me!'s newest, American Rubicon is brighter, has a vaguely '80s feel, very summery. I hate summery, which isn't their fault, really. The first half is enjoyable enough but unmemorable; the second half is much stronger. In fact, I wonder how my opinion of the album would've changed if they'd lopped off everything before "Overpopulated," a reggae-inflected tune about, well, just what you think it's about. (Though a track from the first half, "Muniphobia," about germaphobes afraid of public transportation (no, seriously), while a little dumb, is kinda fun.)

You can tell the guys are trying to expand their sound and not just box themselves into folky cowpunk; I'm not sure why it wasn't quite working for me, especially on the first listen, because I respect that they're trying to grow.

One experiment that works really well is "One Day I'll Never," a completely un-punk, jaunty piano number where Peralta tries being optimistic about where his life is and isn't going.

Lyrically, they've also expanded beyond just politics, discussing relationships, Peralta's struggles with depression, and problems within the scene.

Overall, it's definitely worth a listen, it's just a little overstuffed. Once you get past track seven, it's quite good, though the songs don't stick with me the way a lot of the songs on Sitting Army did.

To sum up: Folky, slightly country-flavored punk with catchy melodies and a lot of heart, fronted by a really talented singer. Songs are less memorable than those off the previous album. Skip the first six -- the good stuff's in the latter half.

Standout tracks:
- Problems With Preconceptions
- Bad Apples
- One Day I'll Never

RIYL: Against Me!, Fake Problems.

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