Heart BurnsSire Records
By Bobby Gorman
Many, many months ago some live videos of Tom Gabel leaked onto the internet. It was an entire set of new, solo material that he performed at Emo’s in Austin and man was it great. Despite the less than stellar sound quality, the songs sounded great. They were raw, intense and aggressive – a throw back to Against Me!‘s Reinventing Axl Rose years; and they got people excited. Then, in September Gabel was added to a highly anticipated solo tour of Chuck Ragan, Tim Barry and Ben Nichols which was soon followed by an announcement that he was in the studio recording those songs. A few days later the date was set, Heart Burns would see the light of day in less than a month and with each passing week Gabel released a new video with a new song from the EP online.
But despite all of that excitement, Heart Burns still came as a surprise and it didn’t sound remotely similar to what I was expecting. You see, the studio versions of the songs aren’t nearly as raw or stripped down as either the live videos at Emo’s or the live videos that Gabel released to promote the EP. Instead, all seven songs contain a lot more padding and additional little tweaks which is sometimes great and sometimes disappointing.
The biggest disappointment is definitely Anna Is A Stool Pigeon. The song was one of the highlights of the live clips because of its raw ferocity. Gabel unrelentlessly attacked an undercover FBI agent and successfully got the listener riled up. It was an angry protest song depicting a love story gone wrong amidst a thriving political back story. On Heart Burns, Anna Is A Stool Pigeon seems to be lacking some of that anger and doesn’t piss off the listener. The addition of the harmonica by Chuck Ragan is a nice touch but the song feels a little too polished and upbeat. It has a stronger pop tendency than it should have and while it still remains a solid song, it lacks something that was present in those live videos. Another shocking change comes from the opening seconds of the EP on Random Hearts. It starts off with some loops and beats which would fit better within a Blaqk Audio or Heavens release than something from the Against Me! front man. Luckily his vocals are able to save the song but it still remains a slightly off putting opener.
But sometimes those extra few elements are able to really propel the song forward and make them stronger than they would be by themselves. Take Conceptual Paths who doesn’t use Gabel‘s guitar as the backbone but instead a bass drum kick that was absent in the live videos. On Harsh Realms it is the production quality that shines through as Gabel‘s vocals are delivered through a reverb microphone and with an echo style. Its an extremely simple song and the vocal delivery helps to emphasize that. 100 Years Of War, on the other hand, goes in the completely opposite direction. It starts off like Conceptual Pathswith a bass kick drive and angry acoustic guitar riffs but soon expands with some perfectly placed background vocals from the Eagle Rock Choir. It transforms the song from a sparse simple one into a much bigger and uniting song and works surprisingly well.
Overall though, Gabel has released an EP that you may not have expected to hear but works really well nonetheless. There’s only two things that could have made this record better and that is if Anna Is A Stool Pigeon wasn’t as polished as it is on here and if he had released I Can’t See You but I Know You’re There. That was by far the best song from the Emo’s set list and is leaves a big void on the EP. Other than that though, fans of Against me! – both old and new – will thoroughly enjoy it.