The grammatically exuberant group Against Me!, one of the most exhilarating live bands I have ever seen, release a major label debut next week, and rarely has a punk rock band so fully demagnetized the admiration of their fans in one simple act. The Gainesville band dedicated 2004's tour DVD We're Never Going Home to the unsuccessful wining and dining of major label executives, stating that they remained nonplussed with the enemy world of corporate music; the next year a message appeared on the band's website. "Submitted for your disapproval: Against Me! signs to Sire Records." New Wave, a stab at overproduced hit-making hitting stores next Tuesday, could finalize the dismay.
Against Me!'s closest musical predecessor is the Clash, except that the swift career arc of Against Me! has followed every predictable cliché, beer bloat and all. At the Gilman Street Project in Berkeley three years ago, a transcendentally energetic set had frontman Tom Gabel climbing onto bassist Andrew Seward's sturdy shoulders, beating on his Rickenbacker and screaming to the rafters. Last month at the Warfield Theater, skewered on an awkward label co-billing with the heavy metal band Mastodon, the band acted calmer but were far less at ease, rehashing formulaic maneuvers and poses, as if scared to be themselves.
The band's back catalogue is peppered with anthems, and while Against Me! are onstage, most of the band sings along. Not that anyone could hear--the crowd usually sings louder than the band, even during the songs about how stupid it is to sing along. Rousing the audience more than any other is "Turn Those Clapping Hands into Angry Balled Fists," a diatribe from the band's masterpiece, 2003's As the Eternal Cowboy, that indicts the suburban lifestyle simply by listing off its comforts. In the fourth stanza, out of nowhere, Gabel screams, "I hate these songs! / I hate the words that the singer is singing! / I hate these melodies! / I hate these stupid fucking drum beats!"
What does this mean, when a singer in a band tries to get people to sing along to a song about a singer in a band who tries to get people to hate singing along to a song? Now, Against Me!'s latest attempt is a doozy: New Wave's "White People Against the War" very well could be the only empowering political anthem about the futility of empowering political anthems. The chorus is slick, with pitch-perfect harmonies straight out of the Bad Religion handbook: "Protest songs in response to military aggression / Protest songs to try and stop the soldier's gun / But the battle raged on." At the Warfield, the band followed "White People Against the War" with more material from New Wave, ending with the album's closer, "Ocean," a long, slow dirge about the emptiness in Gabel's soul.
On the floor, the crowd stood still, mouths open but silent.