Tom Gabel – [EP]

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

It’s really unfortunate that Against Me! made the jump to a major label when they did, it meant that an exponentially larger group of people were able to bear witness to the band’s single greatest creative folly or – worse – became fans of the band on the basis of an album that grossly misrepresented them. Long-time fans squawked pretty loudly at the slick, shiny, glossy and politically mute offering (at the worst imaginable time in American history! The field was wide open!), and rightly so; prior to New Wave, Against Me! won a dedicated fan base of outcasts, politically-minded punks and social miscreants on the strength of a sound similar to what one might envision a bunch of politically hot-and-bothered street corner players accosting passers-by might look and sound like; pushing buttons and not just getting in people’s faces but flat-out screaming wake-up calls at them nose-to-nose and maybe winning a few converts the hardest way possible. Their songs were smart and stylistically revolutionary and – somehow Against Me! managed to write songs that haphazardly intermingled the subjects of love, anger, frustration and politics often in a line-by-line basis – without coming off like a fractured, contrived and over-earnest joke; now that’s talented songwriting. Maybe because he sensed that those fans who had been with the band a while were feeling a little jilted by the uncharacteristically streamlined move that New Wave represented, Against Me! singer Tom Gabel has reappeared alone to offer up some good, old-fashioned, rough-cobbled and raw folk-punk rock.

Particularly in the two opening tracks that feature click-track drumming and lean instrumentation, in many ways Heart Burns plays like Gabel’s demos for an Against Me! record that hasn’t yet appeared. Because of the way “Random Hearts” and “Conceptual Paths” are delivered, they give the impression that many of the parts (the drums and sinewy guitars namely) are only place-holders to be redone by the band at full power in formal sessions at a later date. The trend continues into “Cowards Sing At Night,” but by then Gabel is starting to get legs under him and confidence as the one-liners start to fly (“I don’t believe in exceptional-ism / I still have hope for the future.”) and, even though he’s alone here, there is a potency and muscularity to the performance.

“Amputations” removes all doubt that this can work. As the song kicks over, “borrows” a bit of melody from “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and puts all the sounds that Gabel tooled with previously into a line, the singer starts to push his vocal into that marvelous Against Me! growl; baiting listeners to keep up before throwing the whole thing into overdrive with “Anna Is A Stool Pigeon.” The only track that sounds completely finished, “Anna” will blow the minds of listeners that found the band with New Wave and makes older fans cheer at the return to form. Once again the song cross-wires the (normally) diametrically opposed camps of love and political songwriting as it tells the story of a man that falls in love with an FBI informant and gets laughs with its unique takes on the thematic styles it intermingles, but also has the benefit of being a really solid “The Ballad Of”–type song.

After that, the remainder of the EP is sublime. Both “Harsh Realms” and “100 Years Of War” ride the momentum that “Anna” generated and are possessed of some of the best vocal performances that the singer has committed to tape in three years. “Harsh Realms” issues an incredibly scathing indictment of global politics and contrasts it immediately with a disarming plea (“Yeah, it’s a harsh realm/ Don’t abandon me”) that ends up coming off as incredibly sweet in spite of the aggressive and desperate delivery. “100 Years Of War” comes closer to home and talk about the recent US federal election (or rather, the promise of it) as Gabel howls and preaches trepidation with the battlefield command of a seasoned rock n’ roll veteran and fallen idealist.

Somehow along the way, by record’s close listeners are left feeling elated and it isn’t just because the singer has gone back to basics on Heart Burns. Every long-time fan worried that signing with a larger corporate institution like Warner would somehow spoil Against Me! because they were so small and so outspoken against any such thing. Those worries seemed to be confirmed when New Wave hit. With Heart Burns though, Tom Gabel has proven that he still has some bite and, on future releases either of his own or with Against Me!, he’ll bare them again.


Against Me! online

Against Me! myspace
Tom Gabel on myspace
Tom Gabel's blogspot

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