Sire Records founder Seymour Stein helped expand punk into “new wave” by signing acts like Talking Heads and the Ramones, so no surprise he recently wanted to hear something from his old label’s hottest new release, New Wave, the major-label debut of a leftist punk quartet from Gainesville, Florida. As Against Me! founder, songwriter, and band singer Tom Gabel told Spin, “Afterward, he [Stein] was kind of quiet. Then he says, ‘Well, Johnny Ramone would have either loved it or hated it.’ Then he got up and left.”
VIDEO: Against Me!, "White People for Peace"
First Johnny’s love-or-hate, then the world’s — it seems that’s Against Me!’s goal. New Wave’s opening title track makes as much of its referential moniker as the Clash did of the phrase “London Calling.” With the tolling of a bell, a thin rhythm guitar is joined by a quick rolling wall of clean, dense anthem rock, over which Gabel hoists himself to “ride the crest of a new wave” and rally a generation to “wash these shores away,” sounding as stirringly confident as Joe Strummer on the Clash’s 1980 manifesto.
There are differences: in contrast to Strummer, so loose and triumphant, Gabel affects a drill sergeant’s bark and howl, a delivery more in tune with Strummer’s circa-’77 cockney snarl or Joey Ramone’s nasal “Hey Ho!” on the Ramones’ 1976 debut. It’s a divisive subcultural marker, a sign of youth whose emotive overkill, like it or not, has as much to do with emo as with punk. But unlike all too many late-emo neo-punk discs, the nine songs that follow “New Wave” are almost as waste-free and commanding as the lucky 13 that follow “Blitzkrieg Bop” on Ramones or “Janie Jones” on The Clash. The Ramones would spend the better part of their long career wondering why the world wouldn’t take the delicious bait; the Clash opened up, traipsing the world for radical sounds before fatefully daring to combat rock on its home turf. As befits Gabel’s principled radicalism and these very different times, Against Me! search for a storied third way, sounding more defiantly punk — perhaps more stereotypically punk — even as they reach out to the rock mainstream.
Which prompts the question, what rock mainstream? New Wave is “the rare album that’s as likely to appeal to 14-year-old budding pissants as it is to pushing-40 Fugazi nostalgists,” opines Brian Raferty in Spin. That’s just as plausible as its opposite. Legendary producer Butch Vig works his compression magic from start to finish, drowning the big-guitar/tiny-amp sound that once built up the band’s “folk-punk” fan base. In reaction, one Internet poster recently complained that New Wave’s music “rapes” the lyrics — but as I hear it, the production helps deliver the band’s dense screeds. A line like “Derived influence in style of dress” should be musically unscannable, yet the tune’s headlong rush polishes it as smooth as a Paul Krugman editorial.
Except that Paul Krugman doesn’t make the political as doggedly personal as Gabel, who writes about the honorable futility of protest songs, the honorably wrecked life of a veteran punkette, the dishonorable behavior of “American’s Abroad,” all from the point of view of both an observer and an analyst. His personal stake in this love-or-hate gamble was brought home a couple of weeks ago when he was charged with battery after allegedly assaulting a Tallahassee coffeehouse patron who challenged him after he’d ripped down a defaced newspaper clipping about the band. The article in the Tallahassee Democrat ended by noting that Spin had named Against Me! one of the 25 best live acts in America. Who knows, maybe that’ll help excite people too.
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