Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Springsteen Effect: The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady

Last month Bruce Springsteen put the wraps on an outstanding summer tour with the E Street Band, and if rumors are true, perhaps his last with that group. If so, he couldn’t have gone out with any more style. Want proof? Just check out a couple of the outstanding setlists from August alone.

I don’t believe he’s done writing, recording, and touring with the E Streeters, but there is something to be said for going out on top. He certainly would be doing that, closing out, I would argue, the most exciting decade of his career since the 1970s.

Consider: 2000 saw the conclusion of the E Street Band Reunion Tour, complete with a 10-night stand at Madison Square Garden. In 2002 he was back in the studio with the band for the first time since the mid-’80s and released what is still, for me, the definitive post-Sept. 11 rock and roll work, “The Rising.” After a worldwide tour, he went back out on the road in 2004 for the ill-fated (and ill-conceived) Vote For Change tour, then surprised most everyone just a few months later in 2005 with the solo effort “Devils & Dust” (a mixed bag, yes, but the good stuff on that record is really, really good). Springsteen then embarked on his first full-fledged solo tour in years, which saw him pulling out rarities night after night after night.

In 2006 conventional wisdom said it was time for another E Street record—but wait! What’s that? A horn section? A banjo? Yes, “We Shall Overcome,” Springsteen’s rockabilly take on Pete Seeger folk songs was a gigantic curveball, and led to some of the most inspired, exciting music he’s ever created. And the tour—wow.

So that brings us to last year’s “Magic,” which while standing as Springsteen’s most overtly political record yet also marks a more cohesive return to E Street form than “The Rising.” When I’m able to ignore the lyrics, there’s no denying the album rocks.

Just as Bruce has reemerged this decade, so has his influence on younger artists. It seems you can’t read a rock record review these days without seeing at least some reference to Springsteen—and deservedly so. I’ve done it in my own reviews for the likes of Pearl Jam, The Killers, and Ben Kweller, to name a few off the top of my head.

Some of the comparisons are stretched thinner than others, but there’s no denying The Springsteen Effect on two excellent releases this summer: The Gaslight Anthem’s “The ’59 Sound,” and The Hold Steady’s “Stay Positive.” I’ll examine the latter first.

The Hold Steady have been one of the most blogged-about bands for the past several years, especially after their 2006 CD “Boys and Girls in America” was one of the best reviewed releases of the year, hailed by some as basically an instant classic. Springsteen’s name was dropped repeatedly, based on the band’s wide-open rocking style and intricate storytelling lyrics from frontman Craig Finn. Hype like that will typically keep me wary of anything, of course, but I ignored The Hold Steady more for the CD’s title than anything else; I couldn’t help but think the use of “America” was somehow an indictment of the Bush administration, this country sucks, yada yada yada, and I had basically had my fill of that line of thinking by that point.

So fast-forward to 2008, where the New York-via-Minnesota band’s fourth album, “Stay Positive,” received a good, but not quite glowing, reception. With the bang and the clamor calming down a bit, I figured this a better time to get acquainted. And, surprisingly, I was not disappointed.

“Stay Positive” is as solid a rock record as you’re likely to hear this year. It’s full of loud guitars, straightahead pounding drums (a la Max Weinberg), yet changes pace often. I certainly see where the Springsteen comparisons arise, especially with the piano high up in the mix like it’s 1975. Finn’s gravelly voice is probably a love-it-or-hate-it situation for most people; it reminds me a little of Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies frontman Mike Farris, and Finn often delivers his lines in a staccato rhythm that would fit in with the Dropkick Murphys (on the rollicking title track, especially).

Lyrically, though, I would compare Finn’s wordy style more to Dylan than Springsteen (confirmed, I guess, by the band’s contribution to last year’s “I’m Not There” soundtrack of Dylan covers). Like Dylan, listening to The Hold Steady for me is more an academic endeavor than a spiritual experience. I recognize the quality, but it just doesn’t make it past my head to my heart. If forced to compare Finn to Springsteen, I would go right to The Boss’ debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” where Springsteen was basically doing his own Dylan interpretation, too. The difference is, Springsteen quickly broke out of that mold and figured out how to tell intricate stories with memorable characters, but give his songs enough room to breathe so the music reaches right through the speakers and grabs your heart and soul in an iron fist. The Hold Steady haven’t mastered this yet, as far as I can tell.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being favorably compared to Dylan. There are some real gems on this record, particularly the haunting “Both Crosses,” which evokes acoustic Led Zeppelin—think a darker version of “Bron-Yr-Aur,” with lyrics. And speaking of Led Zep, “Joke About Jamaica” is another keeper from “Stay Positive”; not only does the title reference Zeppelin’s “D’yer Ma’ker,” but Finn drops other titles from the catalog throughout the excellent track (which has a bass/piano line that reminds me strongly of another track I just can’t place—it’s been driving me crazy).

If spiritual revival in the Springsteen tradition is what you’re after—and who isn’t?—then I give you … The Gaslight Anthem’s “The ’59 Sound.” Now this is a record that captures the essence of The Boss' best work.

It’s been quite a year for this New Jersey pop/punk band. They blasted onto the scene last summer with “Sink or Swim,” one of the best, most accomplished debut albums I’ve ever heard. Then earlier this year they dashed off a four-song EP, “Senor and the Queen,” that is better than most bands’ full-lengths; that release, said frontman Brian Fallon, was meant as a transition from the more straightforward punk of “Sink or Swim” to the new album, which embraces a wider range of styles and tempos.

One thing I like about Fallon and his band is they wear their influences right on their sleeves; they don’t try to hide anything, and instead of sounding like a ripoff, their music comes off as the genuine homage it’s intended to be. On “Sink or Swim,” Fallon wrote a song directly to Joe Strummer, and this time around he spreads his repertoire to include legends like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Tom Petty, and Elvis Presley.

But no one artist is better represented here than Springsteen. If “Sink or Swim” was the Anthem’s “Born to Run,” with its dancing girls and late-night power drives of hope and promise played to a soundtrack on the radio, then “The ’59 Sound” is the band’s natural progression to “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The new album, like Springsteen’s under-appreciated classic, is more rooted in the realities of death, lost and unrequited love, and the struggle to remain hopeful despite difficult times.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the stirring and splendid title track, where Fallon asks simply: “Well I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.” The chorus perfectly captures the album’s bittersweet tone, as the singer wonders whether we all get one last chance to hear our favorite song “when we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms.”

The other dominant theme of the album finds Fallon dealing with the universal problem of actually achieving rock-and-roll success. It’s right there on the title track, where he laments missing his friend’s passing because he was “playing a show down the road.” Throughout the record he wonders if it’s possible to “go home” again, now that he’s seen the bright lights and big cities of America. He seems to reconcile this dilemma by the end of the record in the spectacular “Meet Me By the River’s Edge,” a song rife with Springsteen references that concludes: “No retreat, no regrets.”

So while Fallon’s lyrics are even better this time around, it’s the band’s songwriting that’s really grown since their debut. Working with a producer for the first time, Gaslight Anthem shot for a retro sound on this record. Rather than the wall-of-sound guitar chunk of “Sink or Swim,” the leads are pulled way back in the mix this time to make more room for the rhythm section and Fallon’s vocals (again, much like ’70s-era Springsteen). Fallon’s voice is drenched in reverb for the entire album, which is off-putting at first but eventually adds to the overall throwback feel of the recording—like something you'd hear on Grandmama's radio.

This intention is reinforced right away, as the galloping “Great Expectations” opens the album with a skipping, popping LP before blasting off into one of the Anthem’s best, well, anthems. Though the band's pop/punk origins are certainly well represented throughout, they move beyond the genre, as well, exploring riff-heavy blues on two standout tracks, “Film Noir” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” They even drift into a little country with the playfully acidic “Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” in which Fallon metes out a little vengeance on the girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day—before he became a rock star, of course.

When it’s all said and played, “The ’59 Sound” is certainly one of the best CDs I’ve heard this year. It accomplishes what I thought nearly impossible—holding its own against “Sink or Swim.” The band wisely doesn’t try to copy that record, but takes what worked and implements it in something that sounds fresh, new, and different. As a result, “The ’59 Sound” may not be as immediately catchy as “Sink or Swim,” but I’ve listened to this album at least a dozen times since it came out last month and I can’t find a mediocre track—it definitely rewards multiple listens, as any great album should. It also proves that, in just one year’s time, The Gaslight Anthem have clearly and boldly established themselves as one of the best rock bands in America—worthy bearers of the Springsteen flame.

The Gaslight Anthem, “The ’59 Sound,” A
The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive,” A-

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