Review Summary: Waiting For The Awkward Leap Forward
My opening gambit: to me personally, White Crosses simply sounds like the band trying to make an awkward jump from low key folk-punk to Bruce Springsteen-style stadium rock. The problem is, they have neither the songs nor the sound nor the stage presence to do that unlike contemporaries like, say, The Gaslight Anthem. Much as I loved Against Me!’s earlier output, am not one of those irritating AM! fans that decries the band completely. Yes, I felt that New Wave was a bit too slick and pop-rocky overall, but I would concede that it felt like a natural progression that updated their FAT-era sound to a major label. It made logical sense, even though it felt somewhat like the fire and passion had disappeared. And if I can say one positive thing for White Crosses, it is that there is a definite passion here. You can hear in the anguish growls of Tom Gabel on ‘Bamboo Bones’ and ‘Because of the Shame’, that Gabel is really enjoying the challenge of writing hard rock songs. Unfortunately, the actual songs themselves are what lets the side down.
The one song that I would pick out to highlight this is ‘Spanish Moss’. Quite simply, nothing happens of any note. It simply rushes by with a few catchy woahs and some nonsensical lyrics and then disappears. This is symptomatic of the album: the majority of the songs feature very weak lyrics, often weak tunes, and the production has seen the guitars swathed in effects, and has multi tracked Tom Gabel’s vocals into oblivion. ‘High Pressure Low’ possesses an irritating bouncing riff set somewhat strangely against lyrics concerning a hurricane coming and destroying a town, evidently based on the hurricanes hitting the band’s hometown of Florida in the last few years. But there is nothing reflective or touching here, it merely seems out of touch and strange. ‘Rapid Decompression’, ‘Suffocation’, ‘We’re Breaking Up’ and ‘Ache With Me’ are generic rock songs that say do nothing much and leave virtually no impression whatsoever. ‘I Was A Teenage Anarchist’ is a statement that sees Gabel turning his back on his anarchist roots and perhaps also his former fanbase, and maybe the song was meant to stand as a statement of intent: we aren’t 19 year old anarchy punks anymore, get over it. Maybe. Nevertheless, the idea doesn’t really get going, and just comes off as Gabel whining over a plodding slow rhythm.
To add the songwriting problems, Gabel’s vocals noticeably do not fit the style of music they are now playing. Where people like Bono and Springsteen have warm, soft voices that crack when needed and really make you feel their tales, Gabel’s hoarse yell gets tiring after a while. It is another problem with their route through the underground to the spotlight: When shouting himself hoarse about anarchy and social change his delivery fits the message, but when he attempts to croon “come on and ache with me”, he just sounds like he is wavering in and out of tune. It is something that drags the band back. The bigger and harder sound plays to James Bowman’s strength well – his intricate lead guitar riffs always gave a rock ‘n’ roll element to the band’s sound, and he sounds comfortable here firing off winding guitar leads swathed effects. Seward’s bass is, as usual, solid if unspectacular. The same goes for the drums with George Rebello proving himself a more than adequate technical replacement for Warren Oakes, though his drum patterns are predictable, never binging any kind of invention to the rhythm section. Primarily though, White Crosses is about the guitars, which are front and centre in the mix. Butch Vig was back in the production chair again, applying his tademark shine to proceedings.
For all the negatives, there are some decent songs to enjoy here, no doubt. ‘Because of the Shame’ is one of the best, most cohesive songs Gabel has written in a while. The lyric drive and tell a story, and they flow much better than some of the more clunky storytelling lyrics seen previously on ‘Thrash Unreal’ and ‘Anna Is A Stool Pigeon’. The lines “it wasn’t her words that shook me, but the resemblance you shared”, and “I’m not sure what I meant to you then so I’m not sure what I owe you know”, along with the constant reminder “with your name tattooed into my skin”, indicate the depth of emotion put across to the listener. The lyrics are wrapped up into a Springsteen-esque musical package, coated in a shimmery reverb and suitable stadium-size chorus and thumbing drums. ‘Bamboo Bones’ is also notable, a huge dirty riff sliding through the song and another impassioned vocal take from Gabel, and a pervading fun atmosphere that makes it sound like it was knocked out quickly in an afternoon. The title track ‘White Crosses’ is also a decent tune, a strong beat and good weaving guitar lines working their way around the most downbeat set of lyrics on the record, about being pro-choice. However, they are spat out in an angry way and work towards a fist-pumping chorus of “White Crosses on the church lawn, I wanna smash them all”.
Briefly there were also four bonus tracks included with the album, as bonus tracks with the CD and iTunes, and as a coupon on the LP. However, don’t get your hopes up – it is easy to see why none of these made the final tracklisting. The best of the bunch is probably ‘One By One’, which is fairly solid, with a catchy chorus. ‘Lehigh Acres’ and ‘Bitter Divisions’ are decidedly average, once again saying and doing virtually nothing. ‘Bob Dylan Dream’ is worst of all though, an acoustic tune based on the premise that Tom Gabel had a dream where he knew Bob Dylan. If Dylan hears this tune he will probably immediately call the coppers out, because Tom sounds like a weird stalker.
It is not worth comparing this record to anything pre-2007 in AM!’s discography; it is barely the same band. But when you compare it to New Wave, it is difficult to find evidence of the progression that has led them from there to here. Where on New Wave they played to their strength’s where possible, White Crosses sees them aiming for something that they perhaps will never reach: a mainstream acceptance, extensive radio play, and stadium-sized shows. And sadly, as much as I like Against Me!, this will never happen.