Floridian punk group Against Me! finds its Clarity; Mississippi Nights concert to follow

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From packing basement parties in their hometown of Gainesville, Fla., to playing on Conan O’Brien, the rabble-rousing punks of Against Me! have come a long way.

This is nothing special, really. Bands like Nirvana and the Clash started out playing in crummy dives before they broke big and started selling out arenas. Heck, even Nickelback probably started out playing their fecal brand of rock’n’roll in some lame bar in Canada before they brought it to amphitheaters across the globe.

What makes Against Me!’s rise to glory exceptional is that they’ve risen without the support of a major label and without a media blitz. This is as organic as growth within the music industry can be. Each stage in Against Me!’s development has been a baby step toward success.

Starting in 1997 as a solo acoustic act, lead singer Tom Gabel looked back to rock’n’roll’s roots for inspiration. Mixing political protest music themes with hardcore punk rock energy and aggression, Gabel created a brand of music that was too heartfelt to be ignored. Against Me! quickly became a local favorite in Gainesville, where Gabel and a drummer (who used pots and pans instead of a traditional kit) played house parties across central Florida.

It wasn’t until 2001 that the current Against Me! lineup finally gelled. By this time, Against Me!’s notoriety had spread beyond the Florida state lines and began to attract some indie labels. That year, Against Me! released Reinventing Axl Rose on Gainesville label No Idea Records to much fanfare. The same genuine sound that had perked the Floridian punks’ ears had now perked the ears of punks all across the country. Against Me! never looked back. After snowballing more and more fans after touring in support of Axl Rose, Against Me! caught the attention of NOFX frontman Fat Mike, who signed them to his label, Fat Wreck Chords.

In 2003, Against Me! made their Fat debut with Eternal Cowboy, which caught on like wildfire. It quickly became one of the biggest indie releases of the year-and all without a music video or radio play. From this point on, an Against Me! show that wasn’t sold out was a rare thing.

Much like with the Fugazi and Rancid and any other indie act that becomes popular, a major label head hunt for Against Me! followed the success of Eternal Cowboy. Even the suits knew that Against Me! was bound to be huge.

Despite the generous offers (see the Against Me! Documentary We’re Never Going Home for the gritty details), Against Me! turned down the major label offers and stayed with Fat for their third album.

Searching for a Former Clarity, released in September, is a monumental disc. Against Me!’s music has always been heartfelt, down-to-earth and honest, but on Clarity Against Me! went the extra mile. Clarity is nothing short of the soundtrack of humanity.

Each song covers a different aspect of the human struggle. Each song poses a question and lets the listener find his own answer. On “From Her Lips To God’s Ears (The Energizer),” a rollicking song addressed to Condoleezza Rice, Gabel asks Condi, “After all this death and destruction, do you really think your actions advocate freedom?” On “Pretty Girls (The Mover),” Gabel tackles love and asks the age-old question, “What are you gonna say when she picks up the phone?”

On “How Low,” a country-fried number about addiction, we are asked, “How long can you go before you can’t turn around?”-a question that has been misjudged by far too many.

On their current single, the band addresses the problem with modern music, saying, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the odious manipulation in rock music.” And on the heart-breaking title track, Gabel asks, “Despite everyone you ever meet or love, in the end will you be all alone?”

Corruption, boredom, war, superficiality, politics, violence, love, addiction, joy, disillusionment, defeat, problems, integrity and, finally, death, are all covered on Clarity (and in that order, too).

In addition to reaching lyrical and thematic perfection, Against Me! has also made musical leaps and bounds. Gone are the days of out-of-tune guitars and pots and pans. Against Me! is no longer just the Tom Gabel show; the tracks aren’t just fleshed-out versions of old songs. Each member of the band (James Bowman, Andrew Seward and Warren Oakes) was as integral in constructing each song as Gabel. While the solo, acoustic Against Me! carried the air of working-class protest music, the new electric Against Me! is no less accessible.

The songs range from fist-pumping to tear-jerking, with everything in between. Some of the songs are actually labeled by what kind of song they are. There’s “Mediocrity Gets You Pears (The Shaker),” “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer),” “Pretty Girls (The Mover)” and “Even at Our Worst We’re Still Better Than Most (The Roller).” The most interesting part of the musical progression on Clarity are the dance-rock songs. Both “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners” and “Don’t Lose Touch” are strangely danceable for Against Me! songs.

The album-ending title track is also a departure for the band. It is simply a narrative of someone slowly dying of cancer. Every line is absolutely heartbreaking. You can’t make this stuff up. This is songwriting at its simplest; song writing at its best. The album and the song end with the subject of the song collapsing and thinking his last lonely thoughts: “Let this be the end.”

The only thing that trumps an Against Me! album is an Against Me! concert.

The band is currently on the road, headlining the “Fat Tour 2005” along with Smoke or Fire, The Epoxies and The Soviettes. The “Fat Tour” will be stopping in St. Louis at Mississippi Nights on Nov. 10, and it is sure to be a rowdy riot.

Unlike most punk shows today, Against Me! shows lack the snobbery and “I was punk before you were punk” attitude that can leech the fun out of a show. Against Me! shows are composed of hundreds of smiling faces, raised fists and shouting voices. Every song is everyone’s favorite song. All the classics shall be played. “Cliche Guevara,” “Sink.Florida.Sink.,” “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” and “Walking is Still Honest” are sure to be played-and a good time is sure to be had by all. If you only go to one concert this school year, make it Against Me! You won’t be disappointed. This is one of the last real rock’n’roll bands left on the planet.