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A.F.I. Not Hot Enough

Joey Kuhn | Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Three years after the Billboard No. 1 hit album “Decemberunderground,” A.F.I. is back with their latest effort, “Crash Love.” The California gothic punk band’s name is an acronym for “A Fire Inside.” Their new album, however, might have fans wondering whether the fire has sputtered out.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, A.F.I was more of a hardcore punk band, putting out albums with frantic drumbeats and shouted choruses on every song. Then, in 2003, the band achieved its first major success with “Sing the Sorrow,” a dark, arching achievement of an album. “Sing the Sorrow” contained the perfect balance of fist-in-the-face punk songs, melodramatic and hauntingly gothic ballads, and more radio-friendly pop-punk fare such as “Girl’s Not Grey.”

With “Decemberunderground,” A.F.I. started pursuing a more pop-oriented agenda. They never lost the dark, almost overblown emo sound that gives their music its appeal, but they continued to explore the world of catchy guitar hooks and lyrics that were actually able to be understood. “Crash Love” follows the same trajectory, going even further into mainstream post-punk territory similar to Green Day or Alkaline Trio.

It was produced by Jackknife Lee and Joe McGrath, who has worked with Morrissey, Alkaline Trio and Blink-182. The album has received mostly favorable reviews, although certain critics and fans have questioned whether A.F.I. has compromised its artistry for commercial success.

“Crash Love” kicks off with powerful, crunching guitars and a delicious metal riff on “Torch Song,” but the rest of the song falls somewhat flat. “Beautiful Thieves” is a fairly enjoyable post-punk anthem that alternates between U2-esque guitar effects and a pounding chorus, all in a minor key, of course. But by the third song, “End Transmission,” it is clear that this album’s aesthetic is going to be very different from “Sing the Sorrow.” The guitars are jangly and almost cute, and the lyrics seem more aligned with summer fun than A.F.I.’s usual lustrous gloom.

“Too Shy to Scream” will probably be this album’s “Miss Murder.” With its bouncy beat and ultra-catchy chorus, it can’t fail to become a radio hit. Unfortunately, at only four songs in, it is probably the high point of the whole record.

“Veronica Sawyer Smokes” is almost unbearably sappy, sounding like Dashboard Confessional without any of the sensitive singer/songwriter appeal. “Okay, I Feel Better Now,” “Darling, I Want to Destroy You” and “It Was Mine” are all forgettable, downtempo chuggers.

Although A.F.I. is usually a lyrically poetic band, “Crash Love” as a whole is plagued with stale, cliché lines such as “This night has only just begun” or “Nothing pure can ever stay.” The trite lyrics would be forgivable if they were sung with extraordinary gusto, but most of the album is disappointingly lackluster in this respect. Almost none of singer Davey Havok’s usual screaming and wailing is present. “Sacrilege,” an angry challenge to religious dogma, is probably the only song on which Havok displays his old fiery zeal. That and “Medicate,” the first single, are the album’s best throwbacks to A.F.I.’s original punk style.

Even from the album’s artwork, it is clear that “Crash Love” is a departure for A.F.I. Instead of wintry landscapes and gothic text, the cover of “Crash Love” features loopy cursive writing in the middle of a shiny heart. The lighter feel of “Crash Love” is understandable considering A.F.I.’s recent popular success with this approach. Still, it ends up making them sound like whiny, lovesick teenagers rather than the impassioned prophets of darkness and abandon.