Saturday, January 23, 2010

I’m Your Third Man, Girl: Gaslight Title Next Record ‘American Slang’

"There are no names and none of the old stuff. I feel like I've said a lot of what I had to say about that old stuff. I'm moving on. ... ['American Slang'] is a hyper-literal album. These stories are coming out of my life and the reflections on the things I've gotten as I've gotten older. It's more autobiographical, definitely more direct. Not so shrouded in mystery. I'm not trying to confuse anyone with a trail of images on this one." —Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem, talking about his band's forthcoming album, "American Slang"

Third albums proved game-changers for many of my favorite bands. For some reason, that third release always seems to make a dramatic impact on the artist’s career, whether positive or negative.

Going by Fallon’s quotation above, looks like The Gaslight Anthem are following in that tradition. I’m trying not to read too much into it or allow one comment to influence my feelings toward a CD before I’ve even heard one cut. But when he talks about getting rid of the stories and the names, etc., it gives me pause. This could be reflective of an entire identity shift for the band, because I’d argue those are some of the core elements of The Gaslight Anthem.

But I don’t want to go too crazy. Fallon has yet to write a song I don’t like, so why all of a sudden should I think he’s going to start now? If he’s writing about more personal stuff, fine—I like him, so I’d like to know more about him, anyway.

The possibility that "American Slang" could change Gaslight forever got me thinking about other third records. Here’s a look at some of my favorite artists’ third albums, and what those records meant to their respective careers:

“Rock N Roll,” Ryan Adams (2003)

Forced by his record label to record this train wreck as a more “appropriate” follow up to his previous album, “Gold,” Adams traded in his country blues for awful rock and roll imitation. Though he’d come back with some spectacular songs over the next several years, after this his career never got fully back on track and didn’t fulfill the promise of his first two CDs.

“A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar,” Dashboard Confessional (2003)

Dashboard plugs in! It was a pretty big deal at the time, and led to a great album. Unfortunately, it was the last great one for Chris Carrabba. Electricity has not served him well in the years since, as he’s drifted further and further into the morass of weak, generic pop/punk. “Hands Down” is gold, though.

“Before These Crowded Streets,” Dave Matthews Band (1998)

OK, technically it’s their fourth album, but “Remember Two Things” is more like an extended EP than a full-fledged album. Regardless, the wheels started getting a little loose on what was certainly the band’s weakest album to date. At the time I convinced myself all of these longwinded tracks were awesome, but turns out there were only a couple truly great songs: “Crush” and “The Dreaming Tree.” The rest are just OK, and it would take the band more than a decade to recapture their previous glory.

“To Bring You My Love,” PJ Harvey (1995)

For her third album, Polly Jean expanded her palette by creating a fuller, thicker, almost industrial sound at times around her incisive voice. In moving away from the raw-nerve feel of her first two albums, Harvey created what was hailed by many as one of the best albums of the ’90s.

“Boys and Girls in America,” The Hold Steady (2006)

The hardcore fans can argue all they want over which of THS’ four albums is best, but most people had never heard of the band before this one. It put them on the map in a major way, landing on several year-end top 10 lists.

“Led Zeppelin III,” Led Zeppelin (1970)

The turning point in Led Zeppelin’s career, “III” saw the band step outside the hard-rock blues of their first two albums to embrace wider sounds, namely acoustic folk. At the time people didn’t really know how to handle a beautiful track like “That’s the Way” coming from the malevolent gods of thundering riffs, but without “III,” there probably would’ve been no “IV.” Oh yeah, “Immigrant Song,” “Gallows Pole,” and “Tangerine” weren’t half bad, either.

“Vitalogy,” Pearl Jam (1994)

This album was just weird and dark enough to do exactly what the band hoped: Blow a hole in their popularity and bring their stardom down to a more manageable level. They'd never be on the cover of Time magazine again, and that's the way they wanted it. "Vitalogy" also, by the way, includes some of their greatest songs, including “Corduroy,” “Immortality,” and “Better Man.”

“OK Computer,” Radiohead (1997)

Not a Radiohead fan, I cannot comment with authority on the specifics of this album. However, I do know it was a watershed moment for the band and was hailed as one of the best albums of the decade. Seems to me it set the path for all Radiohead would accomplish in the next one.

“Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” The Smashing Pumpkins (1995)

Billy Corgan and the Pumpkins peaked both artistically and popularly with this monster double-disc set, which featured some of the band’s biggest hits including “Tonight, Tonight,” “1979,” “Thirty-Three,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “Zero,” and my favorite Pumpkins song, “Muzzle.” Corgan has been no less ambitious since, but the results haven’t been nearly as satisfying as this mid-’90s classic.

“Final Straw,” Snow Patrol (2003)

With this record the Irishmen shed some of the idiosyncrasies of their first two albums and moved toward a slightly more traditional pop/rock form. Songs like “Run,” “How to Be Dead,” “Chocolate,” and “Spitting Games” set the stage for their U.S. breakthrough three years later with “Chasing Cars.”

“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen (1975)

This needs no explanation, I presume.

“Tiny Music … Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop,” Stone Temple Pilots (1996)

“Huh?” That was basically my reaction when I first heard this album. Over time, I’d come to appreciate this record very much thanks to great tracks like “Seven Caged Tigers,” “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” and “Art School Girl.” But in the “Led Zeppelin III” tradition, “Tiny Music” sounded absolutely nothing like anything STP had done before. Much of it was psychedelic avant garde art-pop, and my teenage ears just weren’t ready for it. Looking back, it was the band’s best artistic achievement, if not their best album (that goes to "Purple").

“War,” U2 (1983)

The band’s first mega-album, “War” propelled U2 to superstar status on the backs of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day.” They’d never be the same again. Nor would rock and roll.

“White Blood Cells,” The White Stripes (2001)

Though it’s not one of my favorite Stripes albums, Jack White wouldn’t be Jack White as we know him today without this breakthrough effort, thanks to the two-minute ditty “Fell in Love with a Girl.” The Lego-ized video caught everyone by storm, and White went on to become one of the most important and productive musicians of the decade.

Monday, January 18, 2010

‘We Came to Sing Out A Chorus’: Brian Fallon, Live at the Black Cat, 1.16.10

You want to know if a songwriter can really hold his water? Stick him on a bare stage on a Saturday night in front of a packed room armed with nothing but a $200 acoustic guitar and a microphone.

That was the scenario for Brian Fallon this weekend at the Black Cat in D.C. Over the course of a fun and loose hour and a half set, The Gaslight Anthem frontman proved his punk/soul music has real chops (as if we didn’t know that already, but still). Fallon played nearly a dozen Gaslight songs, and all held up extraordinarily well. Stripped bare of the pounding drums and electric guitars, it was impressed upon me yet again what a fabulous songwriter the man is.

Standing out in particular were “Old White Lincoln” and “Casanova, Baby!” On record, these are a couple of freewheelin' uptempo cuts; in one of my reviews I called “Lincoln” a throwaway rocker in the tradition of Springsteen’s “The River” album. But taken down to this level, they become much more serious, effective affairs; not better, necessarily, but definitely more intentional.

Other change-of-pace highlights were “We Came to Dance,” “Senor and the Queen,” and, of course, “1930”; these became almost entirely new songs. Other choices lent themselves perfectly to this setting, quiet Gaslight cuts like “Blue Jeans & White T-shirts,” “Here’s Looking At You, Kid,” and “The Navesink Banks,” whose opening riff drew one of the largest responses of the night. I had already heard acoustic versions of “Great Expectations” and “The ’59 Sound,” and these were as good as ever Saturday night. And Fallon threw in “Film Noir,” which worked quite well despite his own doubts.

Fallon was chatty and in good spirits all night, despite the catcalls and obnoxious song requests from drunken morons. He opened the show not with a song, but a five-minute talk on how this show would peel back “the mystique” of the rock and roll singer. Well, Fallon’s never had much mystique to begin with, and that’s one of the reasons why I love the guy. There was absolutely no self-aggrandizement to the evening, in the way I’ve seen other, more famous frontmen handle these types of shows. Amazingly, though, Fallon was able to tell a joke and have a laugh, then jump right into a song and be lost in that moment as if it was the most serious thing in the world. Overall, it wasn’t as emotionally transcendent as a typical Gaslight show, but it was a different kind of awesome.

For the encore, Fallon was joined onstage by his friend and opener, Dave Hause, lead singer for The Loved Ones. This was actually the weakest point in the show, as their two voices clashed more than complemented one another. Encore opener “Call It Off,” a Tegan and Sara cover, was close to awful, but things got better from there.

Fallon demonstrated a new depth to his voice by taking the lead on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and the two of them finally hit their stride on a wondrous take on Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home.” Covering Social Distortion’s “Ball & Chain” will bring any house down, and then they wrapped up with an outstanding “Gone,” a Bouncing Souls cover they said they figured out right before the show.

Though he talked about how much he loves the Black Cat and how proud he is of the success his band’s had, he didn’t specifically address the irony of the situation Saturday night. The last time he played that venue with Gaslight was Feb. 8, 2008, opening for The Loved Ones in the tiny room downstairs. Now, less than two years later, Hause opened for Fallon, on the mainstage, not even needing the band to basically sell the place out. More than anything, it was good to see the intervening days haven’t changed him all that much. Saturday night’s show felt like just a guy playing a guitar in front of some friends.

All that said, there’s a reason Dave Hause is Dave Hause and Brian Fallon is Brian Fallon (no disrespect to Hause—I loved his set, especially the songs he wrote outside of The Loved Ones; “Resolutions,” “Pray for Tucson,” and “C’mon, Kid” were three of the best of the night, from either guy). When Fallon took the stage and (finally) lit into “Great Expectations,” it was clear once again he has that intangible “it” factor; it’s not mystique, necessarily, but honest, instantly likable charisma. And there’s no peeling that back.

Brian Fallon

Black Cat

Washington, D.C.



Great Expectations

We Came to Dance

Have You Ever Seen the Rain (CCR cover)

Film Noir

The Navesink Banks

The ’59 Sound

Senor and the Queen

Blue Jeans & White T-shirts


Old White Lincoln

Casanova, Baby!

Here’s Looking At You, Kid

ENCORE (w/Dave Hause of The Loved Ones)

Call It Off (Tegan and Sara cover)

Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash)

Long Ride Home (Patty Griffin)

Ball & Chain (Social Distortion)

Gone (The Bouncing Souls)

Show Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes