Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Review: Against Me!'s Original Cowboy
Strong, reflective, critical album by this popular pop-punk outfit. These guys played Nouveau Casino last year and will most likely be back soon. Check them out if this interests you.
Against Me!‘s The Original Cowboy is a re-release in demo form of their fine 2003 work The Eternal Cowboy. The Original Cowboy differs from its more polished predecessor on paper only by sinking “Sink, Florida, Sink!” and by “A Brief Yet Triumphant Introduction”, which was was originally “A Brief Yet Triumphant Intermission” (and has different lyrical phrasings here and there). Look, let’s be honest. This is not an album of demos like the early Elvis Sun Records recordings, where one song is straight-up country and the next is this rebel struggling out of its womb called rock-and-roll. There are differences. How big and important these demos are depends on your tastes—slightly more produced versus rougher. This band was certainly not as well-known in 2003 as they are today, after their major label debut New Wave last year was hailed by some critics as the most important rock album of the year. So let’s go back and treat these songs properly, especially for those who don’t yet have the back catalog.
Against Me! protests and documents…and with their few love and loss songs, documents and identifies in humanist fashion. But, going beyond those political prereqs, they also ask questions, even about the usefulness of protest or of asking questions about the usefulness of protest. This reflexive quality, too in-your-face earnest for some, is what especially sets them apart from less mature brands of a-punk allergies to authority. The Original Cowboy has been arranged in a way to emphasize those qualities of protest and self-reflexivity and -critique, perhaps in a more coherent fashion than did its predecessor. Critique and self-reflection are the lyrical hallmarks of almost all these songs, while their author’s anger, hope, and desire for change comes out in Tom Gabel’s yelp-yawp-howls and their fleeting more whole-noted echoes of Glen Danzig. The instrumental side is what everyone has said and will say: it’s grittier and, if that’s what you like, better. It ranges from pop-punk to more complicated, sometimes stuttered but melodic indie rock riffs (Jawbox comes to mind) and also acoustic folk. Guitarist James Bowman and bassist Andrew Seward’s backing vocals also play an integral role in the memorable singalong choruses Against Me! has given us. The bottom line: This is great punk rock with a sometimes folk/alt-rock-guitar twist. The only problem with it is it’s not exactly new.
From the get go Against Me! was tagged as a political folk-punk act. To me it makes no sense at all to even remark that a band is political if you’re not going to analyze their lyrics or explain how some aspect of their identity is political. With Against Me!, as with Woody Guthrie or The Dead Kennedys, what is political is mainly the lyrics. The reviews of these tracks in their more produced 2003 album form did not pay much attention to the lyrics (partly because of the approximately 120-word review format for lesser-known bands). Let’s fix that once and for all.