Thursday, June 17, 2010

REVIEW: American Slang - The Gaslight Anthem

Summer of '08: I first found out about The Gaslight Anthem in Rolling Stone magazine right after they released their 2nd album, The '59 Sound. The selling point for me was 'Punk rock music influenced by The Clash and Social Distortion with a twist of Bruce Springsteen-inspired lyrics'. My initial thoughts about The '59 Sound was that the music was great, but nothing I've not heard before. The lyrics, on the other hand, was what made that album special. I fell in love with Brian Fallon's words instantly. Some may think his lifting lyrics directly off classic songs and namechecking rock stars are cheesy. But what he really was doing was paying homage to them. Look beyond all the early Springsteen-esque songwriting and you could tell Brian was writing from the heart. Those songs sure had great rock beats, and they had lotta soul too. They really captured the essence of being young and growing up, and I could relate to that. The '59 Sound has become one of the my favorite albums of the past ten years. And then when I saw their live set at Hyde Park last summer, I was blown away by their sheer passion for rock & roll.

Their debut effort, Sink Or Swim, sounds like a freight train coming right at you. It reconvened my love for punk music, without any bullshit about politics or popular social trends; just straight-up raw, loud and fast punk. And like The '59 Sound, the songs romanticize the feeling of growing up as a teenager; songs like The Backseat, Here's Looking At You Kid, Drive, Old White Lincoln, Meet Me By The River's Edge, The Patient Ferris Wheel, Casanova Baby, Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts, and many more.

Before I carry on any further, I think it's important to note that The Gaslight Anthem is an outstanding band in their own right. But partly why they've gotten to where they are now is because Bruce Springsteen had 'sorta approved of them'. But I'm not listening to this band because they're somehow related to Bruce. I'm sure the band wants to rid themselves of all the references to Bruce in the music press and make a name for their own. And also fuck the press for saying that their sound is influenced by Bruce's because it's obviously not. Besides, they also happen to be one of the very few new rock outfits amidst the huge pile of music shit that's worth checking out now.

American Slang: I know not to judge how good an album is by looking at its cover, but when I first saw this one, I had a gut feeling that it was gonna be something real special, also not to mention its beautiful sounding title. My expectations were high, but at the same time, I thought they really couldn't outdo themselves after The '59 Sound. Some may be disappointed by the fact that the music here is quite similar to their previous album. I'm not really troubled by that, cause it's not entirely the same. I like that the band has taken the effort to mix up their sound a bit more. There's a little more motown and soul music infused in some songs, and also many more infectious guitar hooks here. Thanks to the rhythm guitars, they actually make the songs sound very distinct from one another. I can hear that the reverb in Brian's voice is now gone. He knows he's not a great singer (and it's quite obvious), but he's proud of that fact and isn't afraid to show it.

While Sink Or Swim and The '59 Sound is about the wonderful, heartbreaking experiences of youth and reminiscing about the past, American Slang is a record about coming to terms with reality and knowing you can't stay young forever. It's time to move on and make something of yourself. In the words there are lots of references to growing older. And once again, Brian takes his songwriting chops to an even higher level. I can't say this enough; he's just SO GOOD at writing. There are even a number of great and memorable lines that can be quoted in a high school graduation speech!

The title track starts off mellow and then the music crashes in with the snare as a downbeat (this is used quite often throughout the album) and an awesome guitar melody. I especially like the bridge here:

Here's where we died that time last year, and where the angels and devils meet
You can dance with the queen if you need, she will always keep your cards close to her heart

I still don't know what the hell it means, but it sure gives me the chills. Stay Lucky is probably my favorite tune here and it won't sound out of place on The '59 Sound. What more can I say? It's just fucking catchy as hell! The third song, Bring It On, is where the soul influences come in. You can hear it in the background vocals. There's a very nice 'loose' structure to the whole song, where the first chorus comes in so fast before you know it, and the music keeps getting better and better.

And then there's The Diamond Church Street Choir, a bonafide Gaslight Anthem classic. The 60's doo-wop, finger snapping, Dion/Valli influences is something you just don't expect to hear in a modern rock song, but this one is just so fucking cool.

Orphans has the same chord progression as The Patient Ferris Wheel. And coincidentally the words start off with "Goodbye circus wheel...." Sometimes, it's those 'little' sounds you hear that makes the song special. In this case, it's the guitars during the second portions of the verses -- there's just some mystical quality about it. The next song, Boxer, starts out very unexpectedly -- a short weird rap from Brian. It's an uplifting number paying tribute to all those who've taken shit from others and end up rising above everyone else.

I think most fans will agree that Old Haunts is a cut above the rest of the songs here. Pay attention to those beautiful guitar melodies in the background. The verse is just simply mindblowing. The chorus is just reeked with emotion and I think it perfectly sums up the theme of the whole album:

So don't sing me your songs about the good times Those days are gone and you should just let them go And God help the man who says If you'd have known me when Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts

The final tune, We Did It When We Were Young, and also the longest track at over 4mins, is a bold but interesting way to end off the record; very mellow verse, but powerful chorus. The song has two different pitches of Brian's singing in unison. Again, who cares if he can't sing well?

Overall, American Slang, though not quite as good as The '59 Sound, is still a very solid effort from the Jersey boys, and I won't be surprised if this becomes the best rock album of the year on many top-ten lists. I like that the album has only ten songs. I also like that the album is short. It's not easy making one with no fillers at all. In today's music scene, the concept of the album is slowly loosing its meaning, unlike the 60s and 70s. I always think it's important to identify bands and artists by their albums, rather than their individual songs. Unfortunately, lotta up and coming bands are recognized only by their hit songs played on commercial radio. And the fact that more people rather buy single songs than full albums doesn't help either. I'm glad to say that The Gaslight Anthem have become one of those bands which have stuck with this idea of the album. Like a band such as Pearl Jam, they won't compromise their musical integrity for commercial success. I'm already geared up for their next release and I hope they move even further away from their comfort zone. I have seen the future of Rock & Roll and.......