Against Me! digitally re-issued last year's White Crosses today. I know a physical copy is going to follow at some point in August, but I'm definitely more of a digital guy so I jumped on the opportunity to get it now instead of waiting.
The album is split into two discs, the original White Crosses which also has the four bonus tracks tacked on to it (effectively making it chock full of nothing new) and then a second disk, entitled Black Crosses, which features 9 studio demos from before Warren Oakes left the band and 5 acoustic songs. Since at this point everybody has already formed an opinion on White Crosses [generally people either love it, hate it, or think that it's just okay] I will spend most of this entry discussing the Black Crosses disc. And for the record: I reluctantly love White Crosses. When I first heard it, I was caught off guard by some of the new sounds and I did nothing but listen to it on repeat while drinking rum for a whole week (those college spring breaks were wonderful). I've grown to enjoy most of the tunes, although the two or three I don't care for greatly reduce how much I like the album- hence my reluctance to admit that I enjoy listening to it. But I digress. Maybe I'll write about White Crosses later. For now, it's all about Black Crosses.
If you saw my previous entry, then you may be aware that I think Warren Oakes was a perfect fit for this band. Maybe it's just because he was a part of the line up for so long, but I've grown accustomed to his style when listening to Against Me!. He just fit and sounded right, you know? His replacement, George Rebelo (from Hot Water Music) is a fantastic drummer but he just didn't really mesh in well with the rest of the band. He's a tight drummer, but there's just something about his playing that made Tom Gabel's songs less exciting sounding. (It should be noted that George has since left the band and his replacement, Jay Weinberg, adds a whole new level of intensity to the band, particularly their live show).
Anyway, my main point is that it's nice to hear some "new" recordings with Warren behind the drumkit.
However, the fact that these are demos and not fully polished recordings means that there are some pros and cons to them. Since these were not the finished products, the songs sound less produced and slightly more raw than their White Crosses counterparts. This of course, will please the fans who hated White Crosses for its clean and overproduced sounds. Unfortunately, since they are demos, it also means that they're just a showcase for what the song was supposed to sound like. This leads to some songs lacking a certain "punch" to them, especially in the vocal department, "White Crosses" in particular. Some of the songs still have that perfect Tom Gabel cry, so it's not all of them. Other songs, of course, have different lyrics but the only really noticeable changes belong to "Spanish Moss."
But I can look past some of these quiet vocal bits or lyrical differences. It's not a hindrance to enjoying the songs, assuming you enjoyed them in the first place. They're demos, they're supposed to sound different, if not worse, than the album versions. The sequencing on the album, however, is structured awkwardly and that does kind of distract from enjoying the album. The songs are put into as close of an order to the original tracklist, which makes sense in terms of Black Crosses being an inverse version of White Crosses. Yet this also means the acoustic tracks are mixed in with the full band tracks switching back and forth between them without any fluid transitions. I know it's an album full of demos, so it doesn't necessarily have to flow well but having that fluidity would only help to give it a more cohesive feel as an album as opposed to a collection of songs thrown together.
I think it's hard to review an album full of demos and acoustic versions. On one hand, you automatically want to compare the songs to their album counterparts because they're pretty much two sides of the same coin. On the other hand, it's hard to take the album seriously as its own entity because it is under constant comparison. With that taken into consideration, I don't think Black Crosses really stands out very well on its own, unlike Against Me!'s previous demo collections (The Original Cowboy and Total Clarity) (though to be fair, The Original Cowboy didn't really sound that much different from the actual album and was kind of pointless). I think the band knew that, too, and that's why it was attached to White Crosses. Don't get me wrong here, -there are some solid tracks ("Hot Shots" and "Soul Surrender" are great, unreleased tunes) but it definitely feels like a collection of songs instead of a standalone album. Not that it was meant to sound like one, so perhaps I'm just being overly critical. I'll leave it at this: it's definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of the original White Crosses.