Against Me! has come a long way since a young, gravel-voiced Tom Gabel sang "Reinventing Axl Rose" on his band's debut EP, bashing the strings of his acoustic guitar like it could make him more sincere — aiming to "strike chords that cut like a knife/It would mean so much more than a ticket stub or a T-shirt."
The song — both in its acoustic context, and as the electrified title track of Against Me!'s first full-length — plays like a creed, a mission statement for the type of dirty anarchic ruffians that would form a band rooted equally in agit-folk and crust-punk. And it worked. Against Me! seems to have become the de facto figurehead for an entire scene of politically outspoken folk-punks (This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, Andrew Jackson Jihad, et. al.) with Gainesville, Fla., as their Mecca.
So with such revered status in the underground, it's understandable that die-hard fans might have greeted New Wave, Against Me!'s Sire debut with skepticism and/or scorn. The punk-versus-major label argument gets a new chapter. And it's a circular argument in which nobody ever wins or loses.
Indeed, New Wave, sacrifices much of the raw, brittle spontaneity of Against Me!'s earliest recordings. But it doesn't come without precedent, either. The band's stint on Fat Wreck Chords — which resulted in two studio LPs, 2003's As the Eternal Cowboy and 2005's Searching for a Former Clarity — showed a steady evolution toward a more polished, but no less intense presentation. Those chords that once cut with a serrated blade now sliced more fluidly.
But with New Wave, Against Me!'s approach is not only more condensed, but almost void of the folk sounds on which the band built its reputation. Recorded by veteran producer and drummer Butch Vig, New Wave is a big-label rock record. No doubt.
But the confliction Gabel puts into his lyrics make it fit — perhaps awkwardly, but fit nonetheless. "Americans Abroad!" chases globalization through the eyes of an internationally touring band. Gabel sings with customary muscularity, "Here we are a rock band looking for new audiences/Wherever we go Coca-Cola's already been/We're Americans abroad! We're Americans abroad!/I just can't help but think there's a comparison/While I hope I'm not like them, I'm not so sure."
As he's done since the early days, Gabel is casting political commentary through personal experience. But where "Reinventing Axl Rose" played out with naïve confidence, "Americans Abroad!" casts a more jaded look at the affair. It's less hopeful, but only in that it's more realistic, swapping the righteousness of youth for adult observation.
It's easy to declare, "Baby, I'm an anarchist" when you're still playing basements and bookstores across an underground America. But Against Me! isn't playing house shows anymore, perhaps mostly because of the very legions of fans that would scorn their success.
Gabel sings as boldly as he ever has, on New Wave's title track, "We can be the bands we want to hear." That's what they're doing. And anybody who doesn't want to hear Against Me! anymore should know there's a Guitar Center on Rivers Avenue. You're invited to reinvent Tom Gabel.