Against Me! has been polarizing fans since they stopped using drums made from pickle buckets, so I suppose sooner or later they were going to leave me by the wayside. Nothing personal, artistic exploration, we'll always have Reinventing Axl Rose. That doesn't make it any easier for me to criticize White Crosses, the group's second major label effort. It's a logical growth from New Wave, with Butch Vig again manning the soundboards, but it's one that I can't grow with.
In the months since White Crosses leaked online, defenders have argued that the record is more of an alternative rock album than a folk-punk one and that fans need to forget the old Against Me! in order to appreciate these new songs. Fair enough. I can support that and review the album on those terms, even though I often find myself comparing White Crosses to releases that came out before alt-rock was a tag.
Generally speaking, the band is running the Replacements' playbook this time out. Specifically, the 'Mats once they signed to a major--the drums are huge, the guitars are pushed to the front, the vocals sound processed and needlessly multi-tracked into oblivion. Some tunes deviate. "Because of the Shame" recalls Bruce Springsteen circa The River. "We're Breaking Up" and "High Pressure Low" weirdly recall the Psychedelic Furs right before they started to really suck. "Ache with Me" sounds like...well, to be honest, I can't think of another band with the balls to attempt a chorus like "I've got no judgment for you / Come on and ache with me."
Forgetting the group's sonic shift, there are two major drawbacks to these songs. First, the lyrics sometimes stumble. The title track tosses out a handful of urban images without any real depth or connection. A few tunes expound on drug use/abuse and scene politics, two topics which keep getting old the older I get. But the music occasionally balances that out. The chorus to "Because of the Shame" is a little unwieldy, but the emotion and music make the story about a deceased former lover a standout track. The sterile production, however, often holds back the band. Even though I think "Shame" is one of the best tracks, I can still admit that the vocals, especially on the chorus, are too obviously auto-corrected and layered. It sounds unnatural hearing that many Gabels pushed together with obnoxious backing vocals (check out those "chickuh-ah"s on "Ache with Me" for more evidence). And why the hell can't James Bowman be higher in the mix? Vig and Alan Moulder often keep things too clean, something that needs to be kept out of rock 'n' roll.
Still, the record isn't terrible, and it hopefully isn't the career-killing debacle some are expecting. It starts and ends well enough; the middle is a little iffy. "Because of the Shame" and "Spanish Moss" are both ridiculously catchy, and even lesser tracks like "White Crosses" and "Suffocation" are worth a listen or two. But that's just what makes White Crosses so disappointing: I've never thought Against Me! was only worth a listen or two. I used to swear by their songs. Now I just make up excuses.
Oh, and don't bother buying the deluxe edition. All four of the bonus tracks are crap.