Welcome to Seven-Day Listen, in which we listen to one album every day for a week straight to see what we may find. This week: Dominick Mayer considers Against Me!’s White Crosses.
I’ve only listened to Against Me!’s White Crosses once before, when I gave it an almost wholly negative review last year for this site. I felt affronted that my favorite band of all time (definitive claim) had made was was not only easily their worst album, but just a painfully mediocre alt-rock record that indulged all of frontman Tom Gabel’s worst instincts related to his long-known desire to someday become Paul Westerberg. Though any band evolving into The Replacements is certainly a noble effort, turning into their latter-day major label decline probably wasn’t the best model to idolize. So, this week’s Seven-Day Listen was born, in which I attempt to reconcile an album that they’ve not renounced even when Sire Records seemingly did, dropping AM! after only their second record with the label, after the relatively successful New Wave in 2007.
The first revisiting didn’t do much to assuage my fears that this is going to be a pretty long week. Though keeping an open mind, the level of sugary gloss that uber-producer Butch Vig lays on every inch of White Crosses is still jarring, and not only in a “this punk band has gone arena rock” sort of way. I was a big, big fan of New Wave aside from “Animal,” the worst song they’ve ever released, including anything on this record. Where New Wave merged their sound with the more alt-rock direction they’d been exploring for a while, here they sound like a wholly different band, and one that isn’t particularly distinctive. After today’s listen I’ll do my best to stop referring to the “old Against Me!,” and in service of that I’ll just say that I’ve seen them live twice now since Crosses came out, and “High Pressure Low” and “Rapid Decompression” are done many favors by a rawer live sound.
Once again I’m struck by how much better these songs would be if Vig’s production wasn’t so intrusive. I won’t claim that production is the only issue with White Crosses, but “High Pressure Low” is easily the album’s best song, and is undercut by an ’80s-style filtering that takes the bite out of an excellent riff. The ‘Mats connection is clear at a couple points, particularly on “Ache With Me,” but once again, a perfectly serviceable (if slightly maudlin) ballad is garnished with an obnoxious “chik-ahh” vocal flourish and an overdose of treble. Even “Thrash Unreal” from New Wave, arguably more a pop song than anything on this album, had more crunch than even this album’s most muscular moments. The attempt for some kind of late-’80s alt-rock revival is one of Crosses‘ more notable aesthetics, but it might just be the wrong feel for this band.
Not to keep harping on the same point, but some of the production choices are highly questionable, to say the least. I’ll stop talking about it in the coming days, but it’s really distracting to hear, for example, the pure cheese of “Because Of The Shame”‘s intro, which moves from a piano interlude straight out of Meatloaf’s oevure (not that this is necessarily an insult) to a fairly passionless “woah-oh” bridge. There’s also the ill-advised breakdown near the end of “Suffocation,” which seems like it’s only missing a crotch-thrusting guitar solo. It’s not that any of these stylistic changes are necessarily bad for AM!, but that they feel so half-assed. At it’s worst, Crosses really sounds like the product of an exasperated band indulging a producer who felt he knew best. I can’t say for certain, obviously, but that’s how the album comes off.
“Bamboo Beans” has to be one of the most overtly positive songs AM! have ever put out. Once you get past the fact that the main riff sounds like it’s nicked from the All American Rejects’ “Move Along,” it’s actually something of an evolved spiritual companion to “Walking Is Still Honest” off their debut Reinventing Axl Rose. Where that song saw Gabel demanding “Can anybody tell me/Why God won’t speak to me?,” here he’s decided “What God doesn’t give to you/You have to go and get it for yourself.” It’s starting to become apparent that the righteous indignation that’s been this band’s trademark for so long is still here, beneath the polished veneer. There’s still a bit too much filler on the album, though; “Rapid Decompression,” for one, just feels like a tossed bone to older fans. “We’re Breaking Up,” as well, is a little too saccharine even for this new, more hopeful AM!.
“I Was A Teenage Anarchist” isn’t a terrible song. I hated it when I first heard it, simply because of what it thematically explores, but it’s one of Crosses‘ major high points. It’s just jarring to hear Gabel wistfully ask “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” Not only do we indeed remember, but it’s not particularly hard to remember the Against Me! that was slamming on buckets and bellowing anthems demanding a band that plays loud and hard every night, one that doesn’t care how many people were counted at the door. It’s harder not to miss that band, and not to be mildly irked at the essential renunciation of that period that “Teenage Anarchist” represents. AM! are/were one of those bands who were supposed to remain steadfast punks until time immemorial, who’d keep carrying the torch long after us commoners got jobs and married and maybe divorced and did all the other things that tend to crush the punk spirit out of most people. To see that they’re us, well, it’s not fun. In summary, I take back what I said about “Teenage Anarchist” in my initial review; it’s pretty damn great. And on this album, I can’t begrudge anything great.
There’s something mockingly patriotic about the title track, probably by design given that it’s a pro-choice anthem. In this way, the production value actually suits the album, because occasionally there’s an extra layer of sarcasm lent to bitter screeds in the guise of pop balladry. What’s more notable is how on-his-sleeve Gabel is wearing his heart this time around. It’s not the first time that love has emerged as a subject in their music; after all, “Baby, I’m An Anarchist,” for all its winking references, is a potent tale of a social rebel unable to connect with a mere protester. Here, though, the main thesis seems to be a declaration that it’s okay to be bummed and have feelings and be honest about them, no matter what the scene you came up in might have to say on the topic. “Because Of The Shame” really drives this point home: “Because of the shame/I associate with vulnerability/I am numbing myself completely, can you hear me right now?”
For a band that’s made their reputation on pure piss and vinegar, AM! have really mellowed with time, and embraced their instincts as a huge-sounding alt-rock band. That might not be the most easily digestible choice, but it works when it feels honest. White Crosses at a lot of points doesn’t, and that I think explains the general indifference with which it was met. (It was reviewed favorably enough, but sales tell a different story.) The evolution of their sound isn’t a bad thing by any stretch, but trying to sound like a wholly different band is, especially when that band kind of bleeds together with a lot of other bands out there. AM! is better than that, and hopefully starting their own label (a move made after the drop from Sire) will remind them of when they used to be restless and hungry. But seriously: White Crosses isn’t the worst album they could’ve recorded. (That they re-released it as Black Crosses last year, with a series of superior demo versions, proves this.)