The major label debut, in particular for bands coming out of the punk rock tradition, is a precarious moment for any band. Despite a slew of fantastic major label debuts in recent memory (TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady come to mind), fans still hold their breath and wait to see what the ugly machine will do to their favorite band.
So, it is to no one’s surprise that Against Me!‘s new record, New Wave is being released to a combination of hot anticipation and pending backlash. After Searching for a Former Clarity and a seemingly obligatory live album, the band left Fat Wreck Chords for the more plush environs of Sire Records, and coupled with big-time producer Butch Vig, the major label leap is evident on the new album. And that, believe it or not punk rockers, is not totally a bad thing.
It seems contradictory for a band to release a major label debut that deals, in large part, with the homogenization of the music industry. Songs like the title track, “Up the Cuts”, “Stop!”, and “Piss and Vinegar” question and downright condemn popular music, and the band makes claims about doing what they want, pushing at something new. And while initially its easy to hear these songs and call hypocrisy, in the end Against Me! really is trying to do something new and bring it to a larger audience. It’s a noble endeavor, and the results can be solid, if mixed.
While the guitars and drums on New Wave are a good deal more polished than on previous albums, singer Tom Gabel’s harsh growl remains intact, and it goes a long way toward giving these songs their energy. Lead single “Thrash Unreal” unveils a new penchant for pop sensibility, and the song is punchy enough to ignore the PSA-sounding chorus (“No mother ever dreams that their daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie”). It also shows the band’s strength for anthemic, infectious choruses.
In fact, more often than not, those choruses save the songs from drifting off into typical pop-punk. When, in “Up the Cuts”, Gabel sings about the sameness of the few videos MTV plays, he shouts “Are you restless like me?” and you can’t help but get at least a little angry. The same feeling comes across on the title track, when Gabel sings, “I’m looking for the crest of a new wave.” There are enough of those “hell yeah” moments to make the album fun to listen to.
Still, all the preaching about the plight of modern music would seem a little self-righteous were it not for songs like “Americans Abroad” where Gabel subtly admits an unsure feeling about his place, and perhaps the band’s, in the world. In the song, Gabel talks about traveling in an increasingly closed-off world, observing obnoxious American tourists overseas. In the chorus, Gabel sings, “While I hope I’m not like them, I’m not so sure” and this sort of admission goes a long way towards giving the album credibility. Coupled with a song like “White People for Peace” that worries over the usefulness of protest songs, how they can both galvanize the people and be ignored by those in power, Gabel clearly hasn’t figured it all out, but he wants to at least ask the questions, and probably wishes more bands would.
The album has its problems, though. The band tries new sounds, like the slower, churning rock of “Animal” and the more epic, narrative-driven “The Ocean”. The trouble with these songs is that, while they are new for the band, they don’t sound nearly as fresh as songs from the bands earlier work (like the fantastic Reinventing Axl Rose or ...as the Eternal Cowboy). It’s nice to see them push at something different, but what’s different for them is old hat to a lot of other, lesser bands. A love song in the middle of the record featuring Tegan of Tegan and Sara sounds out of place among all these angrier songs. And “Stop!” and “Piss and Vinegar” are the weakest tracks, showing how Gabel’s straightforward lyricism can sometimes slip into the overly literal.
Against Me! seem poised to follow the career trajectory of former label mates Rise Against, who put out a mediocre major label debut before settling into their new place and putting out a vast improvement in The Sufferer and the Witness. And while most Against Me! fans are likely to think New Wave is inferior to their previous work—and they’re probably right—this is still an album that gets their foot in the door to the big show, and if they use it as something to build on, they can do some damage in the future.
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