Review Summary: A mix of contemporary political observations and personal stories that paints some form of the modern world
First, a little background:
1: Several months ago some videos appeared on the Against Me! fan forum of Tom Gabel playing a solo acoustic show of new songs, plus a couple he had played solo at a few Against Me! shows around the time. "This is brilliant" thinks everyone, "he's going back to his troubadour protest roots, singing songs themed about contemporary American politics".
2: Not long after this, he is added to the bill for an all-acoustic tour with the awesome Chuck Ragan, plus singers from other folk punk bands. Fantastic! None of us are cool enough to have heard Against Me! around 1998 (be honest!) so this should be good.
3: Tom posts a blog detailing how he has been in the studio recording a new EP under his own name. Excitement mounts. At least amongst Against Me! fans, i suppose.
4: Heart Burns is released.
So, Heart Burns by Tom Gabel. His return to acoustic protest singer? More on that later.
Coming of the back of Against Me!'s super clean sounding major-label debut 'New Wave', which was well received by the media but panned by many fans, I (along with several others I imagine) was kind of hoping that Gabel would use this record to get some of his energy and mojo back. In a way he has – it is evident that he is really enjoying proceedings – but he has more stepped sideways than backwards. Obviously this is good – progress is a good thing, but “progress for progress’ sake must be discouraged” (as Professor Umbridge says in Harry Potter), and perhaps this applies here. Tom is obviously trying to experiment with new sounds and ideas but this backfires spectacularly to be honest. Out of the seven songs, four are straight up acoustic tunes and three are horrible hybrids of punk, dance, and folk. And this blend almost made me lose faith with the EP straight away.
The first two songs, ‘Random Hearts’ and ‘Conceptual Paths’ are not particularly strong songs as it is. ‘Random Hearts’ is an attempt at a catchy radio-rock tune complete with lame romantic chorus (“Random hearts that beat for each other, random hearts in a cruel, cruel world”). However it is completely marred by thin-sounding electronic drums that assault my ears instead of driving the song along. There are also horrible beat-breaks and a nasty thick distortion on the guitar. ‘Conceptual Paths’ is even more inane, with weak lyrics and the little direction is has simply disguised by the plethora of effects that have been lathered the instruments. It simply flounders for about four minutes and again features awful electronic drums that just have no depth at all. Would it really have been that difficult to get a drummer that was actually alive?
At this point I was starting to worry. The third song is better though. ‘Cowards Sing At Night’ is the first unaccompanied tune with a cleanelctric gitar backing the vocals, and really benefits immediately from this. The resonance and depth of the acoustic guitar matches Tom’s vocals much better than Pro Tools ever could. The song again has clumsy lyrics, aiming itself squarely at Republican candidate John McCain. I like the idea of McCain still off fighting the Vietnam war in his head, and links nicely with his ‘I am a war hero, not someone who bombed civilians’ self-image. However, the lyrics grasp at straws rather than nail their colours to the mast, giving an impression of a protest song that is protesting about the opinions of someone else other than the singer. Following on from ‘Cowards Sing At Night’ is ‘Amputations’, a song that did the rounds on the internet as an unreleased Against Me! tune. Again this is a more overtly political song, this time taking aim at overseas wars and how they affect relationships. It starts out nicely with a Billy Bragg-style solo electric guitar that drives urgently under the lyrics. However, other instruments are then added into the mix, along with the return of the dreaded programmed drums! After these enter the fray along with poorly-placed backing vocals, a decent tune is ruined by Gabel’s resurfacing wish to play with all the toys in the toybox at the same time.
So after the first half I confessed myself disappointed. Some of my favourite Against Me! tunes are just Tom and his guitar, because he plays with so much feeling and sings like he really means it. I have nothing against an artist's wish to expand and try new things, but so far on Heart Burns he seems to be experimenting or going through the motions. Then something happens. It is at about the time that a screeching harmonica cuts through the intro to ‘Anna Is A Stool Pigeon’ that Gabel relaxes and really means what he is singing.
Maybe it is because of that song, a more personal one to him that has a specific story to it, about a friend who was setup by an F.B.I agent and ended up in jail for his trouble. ‘Anna Is A Stool Pigeon’ also suffers from some weak lyricism, mostly regarding how the words don’t quite fit well enough to strike up a solid rhythm. Still, the lyrics have a nice story, even if there are a few clunky lines (“Ed fell in love with an F.B.I informant, shared his dreams of revolution, now he’s sitting in solitary confinement”). The brash acoustic strumming complements the tune well and it is the first song that has no real drawbacks, plus it has a guest appearance by Chuck Ragan, formerly of Hot Water Music, on backing vocals. It is followed by perhaps the best song of the EP. ‘Harsh Realms’ is soft, fragile tune that brings the tone brilliantly. It is not overproduced in the way some of the other songs are, but instead relies on some quiet strumming with some well-placed vocal echo. Okay, the lyrics are a little cheesy but they work so well with the music that it is hard not to be touched by Tom’s delivery of the line “It’s a harsh realm….don’t abandon me”. To finish off we get a nice ‘heartbeat’ style drum beat (still programmed, but not at all bad sounding due to the fact that it is simply a beat rather than a full part) and triangle to keep the epic-sounding chords of ‘100 Years Of War’ in time. Another more political song with probably the best lyrics of the set, lines like “Teenagers marching in the shopping malls, they’re armed to the teeth” and “Under constant threat, the terrorist’s attack” paint a bleak picture of these troubled times and the culture of fear. There are also some awesome ‘gang vocals’ that act like a jury and sound like the voice of god.
So back to the £64,000 question that I asked at the start of the review. Is this the return of Gabel the protest singer? Well, not really, but only when you hold up your (downloaded) copies of Tom’s Demo Tape and Vivida Vis and say ‘he was better then’. However, if you hold up a copy of ‘Brewing Up With Billy Bragg’ for comparison then I would say that yes, this is the return of Tom Gabel the folky protest singer, albeit in an older, more mature, and maybe more watered down form. Some of this material is excellent. Some is awful. Other people will disagree and think it is great that he is trying new stuff. Some will wish that the EP was an all-acoustic affair. Each to their own but my opinion is that someone in the studio should have simply stepped back and asked whether the effects overload detracted from the songs rather than adding a new dimension to them.
Overall, I think that the mai problem the Heart Burns suffers from is that it is thematically and musically inconsistent, which leaves an uneven listenig experience. This would perhaps not be a problem if stretched over a full album, but with a 20 minute EP it is apparent. The styles and approach to the music slides erratically from fast paced electronics to slow acoustic, while the lyrics don't seem sure if they are aiming for a manifesto on the current political climate or a collection of personal songs. This perhaps highlights why the second half of the record is better than the first, as it maintains slight variations on a single style of music (acoustic folk) and has a set of lyrics that deal with more personal aspects. Heart Burns is a slightly flawed EP, but with its mix of contemporary political observations and personal stories succeeds in painting some form of the modern world. However, I will invoke one lesson: Sometimes less is more.