In 2002, Against Me! began accruing their viciously loyal following in earnest with the release of “Reinventing Axl Rose.” By May of 2008, Rolling Stone had named them the “Best Punk Rock Band.”
But before all that, in 1997, Against Me! was just a 16-year-old boy, Tom Gabel, and his acoustic guitar. Now, Gabel has a chance to return to those DIY, punk-troubadour beginnings with his debut solo EP, “Heart Burns.”
However, the first song, “Random Hearts,” forfeits that opportunity in exchange for synthesized clapping, slick production and electric guitar fills reminiscent of Flock of Seagulls. The only thing about the song that captures the intensity and confusion of adolescence is Gabel’s melodramatic lyricism (“random hearts that beat for each other . in such a cruel, cruel world”).
Thankfully, “Heart Burns” is a rare example of an EP that gets better with almost every track.
“Cowards Sing at Night” rides a clean-but-mean electric guitar riff to stark, punk-rock nirvana. Then “Amputations” raises the bar again with fierce distortion, backing vocals and ever-mounting percussion. True to his roots, both songs clock in around two minutes and flaunt politically charged lyrics (in the latter, Gabel mourns “another generation living under threat of the bomb”).
But Gabel really hits his stride with the folky “Anna is a Stool Pigeon.” The song — which brims with relentless acoustic guitar, harmonica, and real, live drums — tells the half-silly, half-poignant story of a political activist who, “fell in love with an FBI informant” and ended up in prison.
It also serves as a killer showcase for Gabel’s throaty, impassioned vocal delivery.
Unfortunately, even at its best, “Heart Burns” sounds more like a half-baked compilation of Against Me! b-sides than the foray into a unique and brilliant solo career that Mr. Gabel deserves. Already the driving creative force behind his band, there’s almost nothing on “Heart Burns” that Tom couldn’t have done better with Against Me!
There is one possible exception: the penultimate track “Harsh Realm,” finds Tom Gabel alone with only his voice and his acoustic guitar. It’s so simple that it’s almost sloppy, but when Gabel gets to the chorus and pleads “don’t abandon me,” the sheer vulnerability will send shivers down your spine.
It’s this underlying humanity that has made Against Me! so special. The general lack of it throughout “Heart Burns” makes the EP merely ordinary.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org