It might seem odd at first that Fat Wreck Chords is just now releasing Against Me!’s The Original Cowboy, a collection of demos for 2003’s As the Eternal Cowboy. As it turns out, though, the record is pretty well-timed. For the ex-fans who felt burned by the slick production on 2007’s New Wave and frontman Tom Gabel’s 2008 solo EP Heart Burns, here’s something grittier. For fans bummed to see drummer Warren Oakes leave the group, here’s one last shot at the sun. And super-fans and newbies alike get a glorious history lesson.
Granted, the demos and the finished product don’t differ too greatly. Original Cowboy was recorded, sans “Sink, Florida, Sink,” as a trial run meant to help producer Rob McGregor familiarize himself with the material. “Cliché Guevara” is still positioned as the second song and “Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists” is still near the end. Original Cowboy’s session for “Cavalier Eternal” actually ended up on Eternal Cowboy at label head Fat Mike’s request. And anyone who’s been to an AM! show knows that “A Brief Yet Triumphant Intermission,” renamed here as a triumphant “Introduction,” makes for a good opener. For the casual fan, the differences are minimal.
But for the dedicated, Original Cowboy is a treasure. A plugged-in version of “Unsubstantiated Rumors (Are Good Enough for Me to Base My Life Upon)” similar to the one on the Sink, Florida, Sink seven-inch is available. There are little differences in phrasings, like the ending of “Rumors.”
In a press release for Original Cowboy, Gabel noted that, “Listening to it today, there’s a part of me that feels foolish for ever recording these songs a second time.” And while these demos aren’t as fully fleshed out as, say, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos, there’s a heck of a lot of truth to that statement. Original Cowboy is overdub-free, dirty without sounding too muddled, and certainly not a mere throwaway recording. Heck, these straightforward live takes outclass the band’s actual live record, Americans Abroad!!! Against Me!!! Live in London!!!. Aside from some flat vocals here and there, the songs are remarkably conceived despite their rapid-fire formation. The rock-out at the end of “Clapping Hands” benefits from the grit. “Cliché Guevara,” as kickass a song as it was in 2003, sounds even better with raw production, as do “Rice and Bread,” “Mutiny on the Electronic Bay” and “T.S.R.”. Eternal Cowboy is by no means an overproduced record, but Original Cowboy is unquestionably the better rock record, and arguably the better Against Me! album in general.
Now, I’m a super-fan. I knew I was going to like Original Cowboy before I even heard it, and Eternal Cowboy is actually my least favorite AM! full-length. So, I decided to try an experiment. See, most of you have probably already heard Eternal Cowboy. You know how the songs go. For some of you, hearing slightly different versions of those songs might sound “wrong.” So I wanted to test Gabel’s assertion that he felt silly for re-recording these songs by playing them for someone who wasn’t familiar with Eternal Cowboy.
My girlfriend is an Against Me! fan who has never heard Eternal Cowboy, or any of the band’s EPs. She has heard Reinventing Axl Rose, Searching for a Former Clarity and New Wave. She’s seen the band in concert multiple times. She prefers Gabel’s shouting voice over his singing voice. She is a big fan of what Tori Amos calls “audio porn” -- that is, clear vocals and discernible lyrics. She’s less concerned about instrumental clarity. However, she also prefers PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos over its studio counterpart, Rid of Me. She heard the former before the latter. She’s also wicked hot and I want to make out with her like all the time.
I asked my special lady friend to listen to my copy of Original Cowboy for at least a day straight, take two days off from AM! listening, and then play Eternal Cowboy for at least a day straight. In the interest being an amateur scientist, I hypothesized that she would prefer Original Cowboy for its raw intensity, as well as the fact that she experienced that record first. On both counts, I was right. With the exception of “Slurring the Rhythms” and “Rice and Bread,” she loved the demo sessions more. She was turned off by the acoustic songs, preferring the demos’ ferocity. “Clapping Hands,” her favorite of the demos, ended up being her least favorite on the finished album, feeling that the music sounded defanged and that Gabel’s vocals strained too much towards melodrama. Were it not for “Sink, Florida, Sink,” Eternal Cowboy would be irrelevant for both of us, as well as new fans.
Lest we forget, some folks, myself included, felt that Eternal Cowboy was a weak followup to Reinventing Axl Rose. Original Cowboy corrects this misstep. It isn’t overcooked, nor is it sloppily thrown together. Perhaps it is like Nebraska, in that it’s a beautiful accident, a collection that captures the band’s ideas without fussing over them. Against Me! is going to start recording their next LP with Butch Vig soon, and while that album is expected for 2010, Original Cowboy is a compelling argument for a fall 2009 release.