Against Me!, in their two albums with Sire Records, were relatively successful. They managed to morph into a solid-selling rock band, leaving their punk rock origins behind—though keeping the edge—in favor of anthemic, arena-sized rock. The shift worked, somewhat, on their uneven major label debut, New Wave, which included their first modest hit in “Thrash Unreal”. White Crosses had its missteps, but on the whole it was a solid rock record. It delivered catchy choruses, crashing drums, walls of distorted power chords. It didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it had an undeniable energy.
Now Against Me! is fresh off being dropped by Sire/Warner Bros. and are reclaiming their music as their own. They have reissued White Crosses on their own brand-new label, Total Treble. The reissue comes just over a year after the original and includes a bonus disc entitled Black Crosses. White Crosses holds up surprisingly well after a year, considering the typical disposability of many mainstream rock records. The title track still incites all the frustrated energy it did a year ago. “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” is still a driving single and the band’s definitive statement on the punk rock scene they grew out of. Later tracks like the huge-sounding “Spanish Moss” and closer “Bamboo Bones” have actually gotten better with time. Of course, this aging works in an opposite way on songs like the E-Street-lite power-pop of “We’re Breaking Up” or the trudging acoustic shuffle of “Ache With Me”. Those songs, given time, have lost even a bit more steam.
Sure, the sentiments can be a bit too on the nose, the frustrations a bit too broad, but at his best singer-songwriter Tom Gabel roots shapeless frustration in specifics. Despite being perhaps awkwardly confessional, “Because of the Shame” rests on a glance, the look on a grieving mother’s face. “White Crosses” has that chorus that ends with needless destruction “I want to smash them all”, but it begins with those “white crosses on the church lawn” a simple but loaded image, one that could seem overly political—leaning too hard on pro-life sentiments—if he wasn’t singing with conviction to the “you” he’s driving home to.
So, yes, White Crosses is exactly what it was. This version included four extra tracks originally on the deluxe limited edition released by Sire, but with the exception of the churning rock of “One by One”—which probably could have made the proper record—the other songs are just tack-ons. “Bob Dylan Dream” in particular seems an awkward shift in tone, and “Lehigh Acres” leans too hard on the housing crisis to be effective.
The real draw here for fans is Black Crosses. This 14-song set collects unreleased tracks, acoustic versions of album songs, and alternate takes recorded with original drummer Warren Oakes, who would leave before they recorded the actual album. Against Me! is no stranger to this kind of alternate album. Back in May, Fat Wreck released Total Clarity, comprising alternate takes and unreleased tracks from their 2005 album Searching for a Former Clarity. 2009 saw them release a similar disc in The Original Cowboy, collecting tracks that would end up on their best album, …as the Eternal Cowboy. Even their first record, Reinventing Axl Rose was half-filled with full-band versions of songs released on The Acoustic EP in 2001.
Black Crosses is an interesting listen. The band sounds loose and energetic, Oakes’s drumming often ragged in a classic punk-rock way. Takes of “White Crosses” and in particular “The Western World” show perhaps a more organic, vital sound than producer Butch Vig could bring out with his slick approach in the studio. The acoustic versions here, something Against Me! has always done well, are entertaining if not revelatory. The exception may be “Because of the Shame”, which feels much more intimate and, thus, less forced in this setting. The unreleased tracks here, particularly “Strip Mall Parking Lots” and “Hot Shots”, are good—“Hot Shots” is some sort of punk “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”—but they also sound like a sound the band has left behind, so it’s no surprise they got left behind for White Crosses.
For a band that seemed to really hand-wring over the major-label move (see the DVD We’re Never Going Home for evidence) these alternate albums are particularly curious. The titles often imply that the proper album doesn’t tell the whole story—note the use of Total Clarity and The Original Cowboy, or here the oppositional Black Crosses. Either that or the albums are somehow, once they’ve gone through the toil of the studio and label approval and pressing and promotion, inauthentic. So while the music is interesting, Black Crosses and its predecessors feel in part like unnecessary statements of principle, releases collected to convince us of the band’s authenticity.
This constant revision of their career, and discography, is certainly interesting, since it implies the fluidity of sound and the ability for bands to change over time without having some scorched-earth policy on their past. However, the honesty the band couches these releases in—the press for The Original Cowboy quoted Gabel as saying “there’s a part of me that feels foolish for ever recording these songs a second time”—is unnecessary. If White Crosses has shortcomings—and it has a few—they do not rise out of a lack of authenticity. Polished as those recordings are, they still shed an honest light on who Against Me! is as a band, which is to say one growing into their new arena-rock sound. The symbolic nature of this release—on their own label, under their control—is a hopeful one, even if we hear it a lot these days, and Black Crosses shows something of the band’s creative process and the inherent energy of their sound. But the latest chapter in the band’s alternate history isn’t likely to change your perception of the original White Crosses or who you think this Against Me! is. In the end, that’s not such a bad thing.