Tag Archives: Butch Vig

Against Me! – New Wave

Against Me - New Wave album cover10 years ago as I write this Floridian punk rockers Against Me! released an album that was, for better or worse, to become a landmark one in their career, New Wave.

Following something of a falling out with indie label Fat Wreck Chords over their Searching For A Former Clarity record the band signed a deal with a major label, Sire, for their fourth (and then fifth) albums.

This instantly set them apart not only from the anarcho-punk scene they originally came from (though to many there even Fat Wreck had been too big a move) but also from their fans who had followed the band’s first three albums to whom a major label was seen as a hugely controversial move.

The whys and wherefores of all of this (from at least one perspective) are covered in Laura Jane Grace’s autobiography, Tranny, so here I’m going to focus more on the record itself.

From the moment it begins its clear that New Wave has a bigger production side to it, and with Butch Vig behind the desk that’s not a surprise. What it does though right away is hint at the difference between the outlook of the band and the plans of the Sire executives.

Against Me! circa 2007

Against Me! circa 2007

While the band, led by chief songwriter Grace (then known as Thomas Gabel), kept at least a semblance of their sociopolitical outlook, they had added to that an embittered streak focussing on the aforementioned punk ideals, the notion of ‘selling out’ and the criticisms they had gained from longstanding fans, there’s a strong sense that what Sire were looking for was the next generation of Foo Fighters.

While this gives the whole record something of a conflicted edge the dangerous side of the music gets lost in the deeper production, stifling what could have been a very impressive set of songs highlighting the ever-present clash between art and commerce. Title track New Wave, Up The Cuts and the supremely catchy Stop! particularly vocalise this, but it is a theme bubbling under throughout.

Politics remains a strong aspect of the lyrics, possibly in a slightly more abstract sense than in the past, but White People For Peace and Americans Abroad both have political overtones with the first dealing with war and protest singers and the second feeling like a very aware look at global Americanisation from the point of view of the band on tour.

Against Me! live 2007

Against Me! live in 2007

What all this suggests is that there are some good songs on the record and, in many ways it does continue where Searching… had left off two years previously, with the band developing a slightly poppier and more accessible tone while still having plenty to say, it’s just this came across far better with a slightly less ‘over produced’ sound.

That said a couple of tracks really stand out. The first is Thrash Unreal, the album’s second single, that takes the kind of topics often dealt with in teen pop punk but throws them askance issuing something of a warning of increasingly youthful excess but finally standing up as a celebration of teenage rebellion (with a very dark edge).

The other stand out track is the albums closer, The Ocean, that uses the advanced production for all its worth to create a deep and atmospheric piece that delves deeper than ever before into the Grace’s psyche and feelings in a way that has since become something of a premonition for not just the future of the band but her personal life as well (loosely anyway).

Thomas Gabel/Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! in 2007

Gabel/Grace live in 2007

This all leaves New Wave as something of a transitional record in Against Me!’s career, lacking some of the danger of the past and hinting at a possible more ‘corporate rock’ future that never really emerged (thankfully).

The follow-up, White Crosses, while also featuring some great songs also felt somewhat disconnected and eventually almost led to the collapse of the band before their next landmark moment on Transgender Dysphoria Blues that saw them take many aspects of what they were before but become something new and certainly become about as far removed from being the next Foo Fighters as a band could get while still playing pop-tinged punk rock.

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Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

foo fighters sonic highwaysMuch like many concept albums that came before it the idea of Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways could, on paper, sound massively self-indulgent. Across eight tracks the band travelled around the USA visiting eight cities and in each city visiting a different iconic studio to record a song.

What sets this apart from being an exercise in pure self-indulgence is two-fold. First is that the album they came up with in these unique circumstances is, somewhat bizarrely, one of the Foo Fighters’ most consistent albums to date.

Second is that as well as visiting these cities band leader Dave Grohl continued his new-found love of film, first seen in Sound City, by making a documentary TV series focusing on the musical culture of each city, while taking a behind the scenes look into the album’s recording.

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways album cover

Sonic Highways album cover

The album itself is a great modern rock record, combining everything that has made the Foo’s reputation so far, but with an added sense of exploration and maturity.

As with much of their previous material there are hints here of where the band came from with grungy overtones and screamed vocals still present. These are tempered with huge melodies that feel custom-built to fill stadiums and festivals come the summer.

Along with that comes the more conceptual end of things where stylistic flourishes, lyrical nods and guest musicians related to each city are added to the usual Foo Fighters mix to create something extra.

While these could be overlooked on a quick listen they are there and reward re-listening brilliantly, like references and ‘Easter eggs’ in movies, just in appropriately sonic form.

Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl

While Sonic Highways is certainly the closest the Foo Fighters have come to so-called ‘Dad Rock’ it retains enough of the edge of the band members’ shared musical history to set it apart and make it a great album.

While it may not have stand out ‘singles’ like many of their other records, this new-found consistency is refreshing in an often ‘shuffle’ centric musical world.

While the album is very enjoyable by itself, it really comes into its own after absorbing the accompanying documentary series.

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways TV series

Sonic Highways TV series poster

It would be very easy for Grohl and his crew to have taken the easy approach here by telling the obvious stories of each city, but, while these are reflected, each episode adds a personal level.

This varies from the intense connection the band has to Washington DC, Seattle and Los Angeles to the more exploratory links to Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville and Austin while the series’ climax in New York City brings it all back together.

Across the series a real insiders view of the band in the studio is also presented as we see their crew rigging the studios and the band working out the songs and recording them over the course of a few days in each location, while producer Butch Vig gives some brief but surprisingly in-depth insights into the nature of the work he and the band are undertaking.

Much like the album this comes together into something fascinating and highly enjoyable whether your interest lies in the musical heritage explored or the behind the scenes glimpse into the world of one of the rock’s biggest bands.

Butch Vig

Butch Vig

The real highlight of the whole project comes in its conclusion where Grohl, during an interview with US President Barrack Obama, puts the work into the context of a wider American culture and the notion of the ‘American dream’.

Alongside this comes a more universal idea of how the perception and value of music and culture seems to be evolving for good or bad depending on your point of view

While its conclusion is, possibly, a little on the positive and sugar-coated side (as you might expect coming from a band making millions from their art) it also leaves questions open and introduces ideas that leave the more adventurous viewers with a starting point from which to explore many new avenues of music and culture.

This makes Sonic Highways a genuinely successful conceptual, multi-media, work from a band firmly planted in the current mainstream – though I got the feeling each episode had a lot more to say that their hour run time allowed.

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