Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Versus: 'Reinventing Axl Rose' v. 'New Wave'

[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This one’s for Against Me! month.]

Against Me! has gone from one of the premier underground punk bands of the new millennium to the forefront of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll, and they’ve done it on their own terms. Their sound has evolved along the way, of course, which has helped create divisions among fans over what constitutes the group’s best works. It’s old school versus new school, indie label versus major. For me, Reinventing Axl Rose is the best example of the band’s independent days, although I’m sure some would argue Eternal Cowboy is a better pick. Then again, the same could be said for New Wave, arguably their best mainstream record, although plenty of people on the Internet are big-upping White Crosses right now.

But what makes Rose and New Wave preferable are the cultural shifts they marked in the punk community. Rose burst out of No Idea Records brimming with excitement. These songs were defiant (“Walking is Still Honest”) and life-affirming (“We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)”) and occasionally even funny (“Baby, I’m an Anarchist!”). It’s the best folk-punk album that will ever be produced, and arguably one of the great punk albums of all time, right up there with The Ramones, London Calling, Dookie, and …And Out Come the Wolves (And How I Spent My Summer Vacation… and Goddamnit… and The Greatest Story Ever Told...).

New Wave reached a broader audience though. Not everyone is attuned to the underground. And if we’re being honest, it’s the better produced record. Butch Vig made this shit clean. The album does feel tailor-made for success. These are Gabel’s most direct, anthemic songs. “New Wave” is practically a mission statement for AM!’s “up with people” attitude towards music. “White People For Peace” and “Americans Abroad” get political (but not too political). “The Ocean” jams out while thinking of the life that might have been. It’s less musically intricate than its predecessor, Searching For a Former Clarity, but it’s still quite catchy.

I have drunkenly slurred along to every song on both of these albums. What ultimately makes Rose the better pick for me is the memories. Like I said at the beginning of this essay, you could pick any two AM! records and make them duke it out. This is a band that has continually expanded its audience for the last decade, and so plenty of fans have different points of entry, different attachments. I’ve met kids who swear by “Thrash Unreal” but don’t know “Jordan’s First Choice.” But I entered the world of AM! through Rose in high school, at a time when a lot of my friends were not into them. In fact, I think NBT drummer Bob Maiden and A Man of Letters scribe Bryan Lowry might have been the only other AM! fans I knew until I hit college.

The point is, “We Laugh at Danger” makes me feel alive. It makes me scream until I start to blackout. It makes me feel good. You can argue against its fidelity and playing and you will be wrong. Which I guess is how punk is supposed to work. It’s not just about the notes you hit. Just like jazz!

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