Friday, July 23, 2010

‘American Slang,’ The Gaslight Anthem: Final Thoughts

“American Slang” is The Gaslight Anthem’s finest record. It’s more complex, more interesting, and generally offers more depth to the listening experience in every conceivable way. The songwriting is superb, and challenges both the band and its audience. It’s more engaging than the first two albums, too; deciphering this one takes much more effort than playing the guess-the-reference game.

In other words, it’s a grown-up record. “Sink or Swim” and “The ’59 Sound” are young men’s albums, while “American Slang” is purposefully more adult. The shift can be jarring at times, given there was less than two years between the last one and “American Slang,” but the transition rings true for me. Fallon and I are almost the same age, and there’s just something about turning 30 that changes a person. It’s not that I feel “old” or “mature,” or that I started listening to completely different music, or any of that. But it’s just … different. I’ll now be watching to see how he reconciles his current slate of songs with the older stuff, because they seem almost contradictory now.

All of those strange, mixed emotions are reflected in “American Slang.” The Gaslight Anthem didn’t change who they are, because this album imbues all the things I’ve come to love about them: it rocks as hard in spots as any of their previous work, and they’re not playing with any less passion or integrity or fervor. And Fallon still writes in the storytelling style that’s made him such an engaging figure. But the focus, the seriousness, the self-awareness, the intention of the endeavor … these are new things, and they are welcome. With this album, The Gaslight Anthem went from four guys not believing how lucky they are to make records for a living to four artists ready to stand on their own.

At this point, however, it is not my favorite of the three, despite its technical superiority. “The ’59 Sound” will be hard for this band to ever top—or any other, for that matter. That album is pure joy, and “American Slang” isn’t going for that aesthetic.

This is, though, a triumph for The Gaslight Anthem. There was enormous pressure coming into these recording sessions, and the band delivered an album that more than lives up to expectations. It expands their sound without relinquishing what made them great in the first place. That’s a trick many bands can’t manage, but Gaslight does it with aplomb. “Sink or Swim” was the spark; “The ’59 Sound” made them famous; “American Slang” sets them apart.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “The Diamond Street Church Choir”

Least Favorite Track: “We Did It When We Were Young”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

‘American Slang,’ The Gaslight Anthem: The American Dream

My only problem with this entire album is, strangely enough, its premise. It drives me insane when people living the American Dream turn around and criticize it. Brian Fallon says this record is about the realities of life, that the American Dream doesn’t exist the way people think it does. I say to them: Maybe your understanding of it was wrong to begin with.

I’ve never thought of the American Dream as my personal ticket to fame, fortune, and life on easy street. The American Dream merely provides you a chance to accomplish great things, based on your own talent and work ethic. What’s made this country the light of the world for more than two centuries is the freedom it provides its people to achieve as much or as little as they want. But who ever said it was supposed to be easy? (Whether this is still even possible in the Age of Obama is a subject for another time …)

Fallon and his bandmates are the embodiment of the American Dream. Here are four guys 30 years old or younger who are playing music for a living, touring around two continents. They’re not filthy rich (yet, but that could be coming if they keep putting out albums like this one). But they’re not punching a clock for a living, that’s for sure. They’re doing exactly what they want to do, exactly how they want to do it. And they earned it, by toiling thanklessly in basement bands for years, honing their incredible talents until, finally, they got their break and grabbed it for all it was worth. What on earth is wrong with that? Where did the American Dream let these guys down, exactly?

This is the most unfortunate way The Gaslight Anthem have applied the influence of Bruce Springsteen, the supposed “voice of the working man.” Thank goodness they go one step further. Rather than simply focusing on what they don’t like, Fallon & Co. offer an answer of sorts in, ironically, qualities essential to the American Dream: commitment, resilience, and the abilities to look for the best in people, learn from mistakes, and improve. Disillusionment with the dream is merely the premise of “American Slang,” not its sum total. They’re too inherently positive to just focus on the bad stuff; I don’t know if its Fallon’s belief in Christ or not, but his faith certainly can’t hurt.

“American Slang” is, ultimately, a remarkably uplifting piece of work—whether they set out for it to be such or not. And in that way, it fits right in with the band’s other two records.

Tomorrow: Final thoughts

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

‘American Slang,’ The Gaslight Anthem: The Springsteen Conundrum

I tried not to mention Bruce Springsteen in any of my previous writing about “American Slang” (almost succeeded, too!) because I’m sick of reading articles about The Gaslight Anthem that reference The Boss. It’s quite the easy formula, apparently, for reporters and reviewers: Mention Jersey, Brian Fallon’s penchant for storytelling and Springsteen references, the Boss/Gaslight crossovers from last summer’s UK festivals, and … done!

The Gaslight guys are walking a fine line on this topic during their media work for “American Slang.” Since the band’s inception, the standard message has been a variation on: “We love Bruce, and just to be mentioned in the same sentence as him is an honor and a thrill, but we’d never dream of putting ourselves anywhere in his league.” Now, it’s a bit different. The new talking point goes something like: “We’re honored by the comparison, but we’re trying to do our own thing with this record.” And the more interviews I read, the more sour their tone becomes. (It certainly doesn’t help that Springsteen’s DVD from last year’s Hard Rock Calling just came out and the video released to promote it was “No Surrender,” which featured Fallon on guest vocals looking like a kid on Christmas morning.)

It’s tricky, because certainly they want to pay the proper respect to their musical forefathers, but they’ve got to be tired of that talk by now. Seriously: Every. Single. Article. So part of me understands their growing frustration, but the other part says: You name-checked two Springsteen songs in one track alone on the last record, so what did you expect? You can’t turn that faucet off so quickly, and it’s probably gonna take people an album or two to catch how different things are now.

Or … are they?

Just because I refused to include thoughts on The Springsteen Effect in my review of this album doesn’t mean they didn’t occur to me. Fallon may not quote a lyric from “I’m on Fire” this time around, but there’s no escaping Springsteen, Strummer, and the rest are part of who he is. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either—it’s partially why I fell in love with the band in the first place!

Some Springsteen-related thoughts, then:

“American Slang” is to “The ’59 Sound” as “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is to “Born to Run.” Last time out, Gaslight delivered their romantic masterpiece, just like Springsteen did in 1975. The Boss then fled those idyllic pursuits three years later and unleashed “Darkness,” the most personal record of his career to that point (think “Adam Raised A Cain” and “The Factory”). “American Slang” follows the same pattern, as Fallon’s clearly stated these songs are about his own life. The album personifies the notions found especially in Springsteen’s “Badlands”: Yes, this world can beat you down, but you have to pick yourself up and carry on.

“American Slang” also reminds me a bit of “Born in the U.S.A.,” with one crucial difference: Fallon isn’t as cynical as his predecessor. “Glory Days” may be one of Springsteen’s biggest hits, but it’s a freakin’ depressing song, as are “Downbound Train,” “My Hometown,” and the title track. “American Slang” has none of that; where the characters in “Glory Days” hoist a beer and revert to their own primordial ooze, the people in Fallon’s America are encouraged to create new days of glory for themselves. “American Slang” is a decidedly more uplifting, positive record than “BITUSA.” I like that, and I can’t help but think Fallon’s Christian faith plays a strong role in this aspect of his writing.

Finally, a few other little things that tripped my Springsteen trigger:

• “The Spirit of Jazz” is a freewheelin’, nice-as-a-summer-breeze rocker in the mold of much of Springsteen’s “The River” (think “I’m A Rocker” or “Out in the Street”).

• Strange but true: On “Old Haunts,” Fallon drops into a super-low range when he sings “baby” that reminds me of Steve van Zandt.

• Benny Horowitz’s drumming at times reminds me of E Street’s Max Weinberg, especially on the title track. Something about those hammering, steady-as-she-goes quarter notes that build and build.

• I’ve seen the observation that “The Diamond Church Street Choir” is akin to the freeform feel of Springsteen’s earliest recordings. Though I didn’t hear that originally, I see where the notion comes from.

All that said, “American Slang” takes a giant step away from the Cult of Bruce; a lot of the above is about what I bring to the record at this point, not the band. But this Springsteen thing is going to follow The Gaslight Anthem for a while—at least through this record’s cycle, and maybe longer, depending on what happens over the next couple years (playing “The Tonight Show” Friday night could certainly move things along—set your DVRs!). “American Slang” was definitely the right move, and it does put some distance between the band and their influences. But that doesn’t mean those things just go away.

It’s sorta like an actor who’s worried about being typecast, so he dogs the character that made him famous—never a good move. The Gaslight Anthem need to tread carefully here; without the Springsteen connection, there might not even be an “American Slang” to promote. Don’t forget who brought you to the dance. Thankfully, they’re doing a pretty good job so far.

Tomorrow: The American Dream

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

‘American Slang,’ The Gaslight Anthem: Side Two

The second half of “American Slang” is a more back-to-basics affair. Sturdy, simple rockers are the story here, but that doesn’t mean their impact is lessened at all.


None of the songs on “American Slang” are quite as heavy as those from the band’s debut, 2007’s “Sink or Swim,” but “Orphans” comes the closest. Led by drummer Benny Horowitz’s hammerfist of a beat, this steamroller recalls such tracks as “Wooderson” or “Drive.”

Thematically this is a keystone moment on “American Slang,” as it contains perhaps the most important line on the entire album: “The clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore.” At first this notion was scary for me, because it seems to repudiate everything Brian Fallon’s done to this point in his career and thus potentially jeopardizes everything I’ve come to know and love about this band. “So you can find some local libertine, to take your daughters out on the town.” That, too, seems to fly in the face of Gaslight staples like “Say I Won’t (Recognize),” “Miles Davis & the Cool,” and “We Came to Dance.”

There’s more to this story, though, and the very next lines are some of the most personal and important on the entire record:

’Cause I could feel it in my bones, the sound of the rain mixes up

and filled the fountains where I drank my hero’s blood

so I left you to find my own hatful of rain

and now I’m trying to keep it straight, learning all the streets and alleyways

and learning where they lead now that I’m left alone to drive

but it’s so hard to stand on your own, against mirror glass hard and cold

but the clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore

Taken in full context, then, that last line is sung by an artist on the move. In the early days of the band, these four Jersey punks were just writing what they knew, combining everything they loved about their musical heroes and putting their own twist on it. But as he sings in the chorus: “We were orphans before we were ever the sons of those songs.”

Sure they all love Springsteen, and Strummer, and Petty, and Vedder, and Waits, and Davis, and Cooke, and all the rest. But where you’re from and whom you love shouldn’t define you. At some point, Fallon seems to be saying here, you have to stand up on your own, decide who you’re going to be, and make your own mark. “American Slang” is The Gaslight Anthem doing just that. It may be difficult—for the band and its fans—but ultimately it will be better for everyone.



“Boxer” is a peppy power-pop/punk track that livens up the center of the album at the exact right time. It’s not one of my favorites, but I never skip it, either—it’s akin to “Old White Lincoln” in that way.

The title is a metaphor that winds through the entire song, referring to a tough sonofagun who always was able to take whatever punishment life dishes out and kept getting back up off the mat, finding “bandages inside the pen/and the stitches on the radio.” In this sense, lyrically “Boxer” is the closest song to the earlier records, returning to Fallon’s well-employed radio metaphors. It also has a callback to the song “The ’59 Sound” in the line: “Remember that song and the reasons that we were singing for.”

The “American Slang” theme of pulling yourself together and moving on returns here, along with the notion of loyalty. When Fallon sings, “I remember when I knew a boxer, baby,” I read that as an exhortation to a fallen comrade (or possibly to himself?): I knew you when you were tough and great and never let the world get the best of you, and I believe you can be that man again. Once again, Fallon deals hopefully with weighty issues; he acknowledges the hardships but doesn’t leave this character alone on the mat.


“Old Haunts”

Here’s a follow-up to the discussion begun in “Orphans.” “Don’t sing me your songs about the good times/those days are gone and you should just let ’em go.” Huh? That’s basically the entire Gaslight Anthem catalog to this point!

As is the case with so many songs on this album, though, Fallon tweaks the meaning right at the end. The last lines go: “Shame on you/you kept your mind and heart and youth just like a tomb.” To me, that says treading on and/or mourning the past is not healthy and acting like a kid well into adulthood leads to nothing but emptiness. Everyone grows up, and those who embrace it and find their own way to reconcile their youthful vigor and dreams with current, practical realities are the ones who get it right. Your “old haunts are for forgotten ghosts.” They shouldn’t be “all you’ve ever known” because, if so, you’re robbing yourself of the full tapestry of experiences life has to offer. Let it go.

All this plays out over Gaslight’s first foray into midtempo classic rock, straight out of the Tom Petty School of Breaking Hearts. The crunchy lead riff could’ve been written by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, and there’s even a few piano fills scattered through the background. Fallon, meanwhile, explores the lower range of his voice in a way he’s never done before, almost donning an old-man persona befitting the subject matter.


“The Spirit of Jazz”

Once again, Fallon answers the questions of one song with the lyrics of another. “The Spirit of Jazz” is one of the most obviously uplifting, affirming songs on the record, both in word and melody, as this speedy cut plays like a cousin to “High Lonesome.”

For a long time I pondered the seeming randomness of the title, which appears nowhere in the lyrics. Here’s my final answer: Like jazz musicians who make it up as they go along, so lovers do, too, as they learn “the steps in my baby’s time.” The singer’s reached a turning point in his life (“the cool is dead”), but all this means is a chance that “maybe in the morning we’ll start over again.”

This is another song of commitment trumping mistakes. The singer wonders, “Was I good to you the wife of my youth?”, but follows with: “Not another soul could love you like my rotten bones do.” If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, it’s not that difficult to envision this as the outcome of the struggle in “Bring It On.”


“We Did It When We Were Young”

This was my least favorite track upon first listen, and nothing’s changed in a month. It feels more forced than anything else on the record, intentionally stark and “moody” in such a way that it’s almost melodramatic. It’s the kind of heavy-handed bombast even U2 has a hard time pulling off consistently, and The Gaslight Album don’t have that level of gravitas (yet).

Part of it, too, is placement. Had “We Did It When We Were Young” been a transitional element somewhere inside the record, it might be more palatable. But holding the all-important final spot, its grandiose gestures feel all the more exaggerated (I felt the same way about U2’s “Cedars of Lebanon” from their last album).

I don’t dislike this song, though, and its grown on me with every listen. It nicely ties up several threads running through “American Slang,” most notably the ideas of owning up to your past, accepting—not ignoring—mistakes, and moving on. (Though I could argue “The Spirit of Jazz” covers this ground just as well, and would’ve closed the album on a more appropriately positive note.) Musically it’s not all bad, but just a half step too far. On an album that takes as many aggressive steps forward as “American Slang,” though, something like this was bound to happen and is easily overlooked.


“She Loves You”

This exclusive iTunes track is without question worth your 99 cents (stop reading and buy it right now!). It’s one more experiment in another genre; much like “Diamond Church,” Gaslight didn’t bother this time filtering country through punk rock and instead just wrote a good ol’, down-home campfire singalong.

Musically this would have been a better choice to close the record than “When We Were Young,” as it feels more organic with simple handclaps, choir-like choruses, and barely-there guitar work. But thematically I understand why it was left off the official release. It’s more of a throwback to “The ’59 Sound” style of Fallon’s writing, with a tale of a Romeo “putting all of his burdens/Into them sermons” and Juliet “smoking by the window,” all the while “raindrops in the cars/Keep on falling from off the bars/Blocking out a good song/Playing on the radio.” When Fallon says it’d be easy for him to rewrite “The ’59 Sound,” this is what he’s talking about.

While it doesn’t quite fit the rest of “American Slang,” I’m quite glad we have it. “She Loves You” is a wonderful little song (and an improvement over “Once Upon a Time,” the bonus track from the last record).


Tomorrow: The Springsteen Conundrum

Monday, July 19, 2010

‘American Slang,’ The Gaslight Anthem: Side One

“American Slang” is so good—so consistently solid—from start to finish, it makes choosing a favorite song nearly impossible. And once made, that selection will most likely change from listen to listen, and day to day, from week to week, and year to year.

It is a brilliant piece of work, and I’m going to take all this week to try and explain why, starting with, where else …

“American Slang”

I wasn’t overly thrilled when this track was released in March as the album’s first single, but it’s grown on me with time and context. Upon hearing the full album, I can’t imagine another song for the intro; it deserves title track status for setting the right tone, from the pulsing first few bars to the explosive choruses and everything in between. The old-school sound is gone, and in its place is a full-on guitar barrage. Its midtempo stomp lends itself a bit more toward the pop sensibilities on this record, though this song has more punk edge to it than “Bring It On.”

More than anything, “American Slang” is polished in a way few Gaslight tracks prior have been (an exception: “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”). A layered song like this doesn’t get slapped down in a day (I presume). They took a bit more time in the studio this time around (a month instead of two weeks), and the intricacies of this opener show the workmanship as clearly as the tattoos on Brian Fallon’s arms.

In the “Making of American Slang” online featurette, Fallon says the lyrics here summarize everything he’s trying to say with this record: that the American Dream doesn’t always work out for everyone (the irony of that statement coming from a guy who’s living proof of that same American Dream I’ll deal with later). I say this track is a signpost that The Gaslight Anthem aren’t out to just rehash their old sound and style.


“Stay Lucky”

I love “Stay Lucky,” but I love its placement almost as much. This is one track from “American Slang” that would slide just fine into “The ’59 Sound,” right down to the reverb on Fallon’s vocals (it reminds most of “High Lonesome”). Had it opened the record, though, “Stay Lucky” may have been a red herring that Gaslight was going after more of the same. The exact opposite is true, of course, but “Stay Lucky” demonstrates the band hasn’t forgotten where they came from (a notion shared more explicitly a couple tracks later). Fallon says they weren’t interested in writing “The ’59 Sound” all over again, and I wholeheartedly agree with the choice. But that doesn’t mean a refresher course like “Stay Lucky” isn’t nice, and welcome jumpstart to the first half of the record.

This is a perfect counterpart to the title track lyrically, as well. Where the first song deals with disillusionment, “Stay Lucky” provides an answer to the problem: OK, so life didn’t work out quite like you thought. Get over it. Stop “pacing around and waiting/for some moment that might never arrive at all.” Take control. Be proactive. Recapture the vitality you had “when you were young” and put it to good, grown-up use. Because “what you don’t have, you don’t need it anymore …” This message runs throughout the album and is vitally important in Fallon’s subtle, yet crucial avoidance of cynicism.


“Bring It On”

This is the purest pop song Fallon’s written for Gaslight. “Bring It On” is one of the “big” moments on “American Slang” in every sense of the word: big sound, big choruses, big subject matter. And yet “Bring It On” gets quiet enough in spots to let you hear the bongo work and background vocals straight out of the ’60s.

This song exemplifies the album’s themes of maturity and realism; here Fallon addresses real love, the kind you have to work at when the infatuation is over—“stop clicking your red heels and wishing for home.” Rather than answering his lover’s wayward eye with venom, the singer responds with bravado: You think he’ll love you more than me? I’ll take that challenge, baby. Bring it on. Though the subject matter is tough, again, the overall impact is one of strength, hope, and commitment.

“Bring It On” is antithetical to the themes on “The ’59 Sound,” right down to name-checking “the cool he sings you in those songs”—like he’s singing about himself from the last record. There’s no throwing stones at a girl’s window here; the romance comes and goes, but “the fevers that just won’t break” are always there. It strikes me as a bit too harsh a judgment on the last album, and makes me wonder how Fallon can play this song and “Miles Davis & the Cool” in the same set. But I guess that’s his problem.

The only thing I don’t like about “Bring It On” is the way Fallon sings the opening line—it’s a bit too dramatic and forced. Otherwise, “Bring It On” is one of the band’s best songs.


“The Diamond Church Street Choir”

For those following along at home, this is where it becomes clear “American Slang” is a great album. Rather than singing about soul music, or trying to filter it through punk rock, Fallon & Co. just go ahead and do it themselves here, right down to the finger snaps and the swinging beat. Fallon stretches his vocal cords to their high-note limit as he croons about never forgetting where he’s from and how much those sweaty Jersey bars mean to him, no matter how famous he gets or where he chooses to live. Consider:

We might of moved away from home and slept out there on our own

A million miles away in a storm

But the beat never leaves and the tempo’s a relief

To my aching bones rambling all over

But if I’m gone for too long I can always hum along

This isn’t just the best song on “American Slang,” but also its gutsiest. Going full-on R&B could’ve failed miserably; instead it’s one of the triumphs of their young career. Utterly unexpected, utterly wonderful, this song is a game-changer—the kind of cut that sets Gaslight apart from their peers.


“The Queen of Lower Chelsea”

“The Queen of Lower Chelsea” completes the most diverse side of any Gaslight record. The song to me sounds immediately of The Clash when they, too, were stepping out of their punk box and striving for something even greater. The snake-charming main riff is unlike anything heard before in a Gaslight song, and it provides the backbone for one of Fallon’s best vocal and lyrical performances. It’s not so much the singing—because he sorta talks his way through this one—it’s more the way he delivers these lines that’s most arresting. Everything’s a bit off-kilter, playing around the beat. And the lines, wow. This is one of my favorite sections of any Gaslight song:

Did you grow up a good girl, your daddy’s pride

Did you make all the right moves, take all the right drugs, right on time?

American girls, they want the whole world

They want every last little light in New York City

In the final chorus he adds a Tom Waits-ish background vocal—much like “The Blues, Mary”—that goes like this: “Where thou die I shall die, and there they shall bury me.” Some message-board sleuths discovered this is a Bible reference from Ruth 1:17. The rest of that verse (in the NIV), reads: “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

I see “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” as a more mature version of “Here’s Looking at You, Kid” from the last record. Where that one was playful and teasing about missed opportunities, “Chelsea” is serious chastisement. I hesitate to break these lyrics down too deeply because Fallon strikes me as the type of songwriter who likes to play with words and phrases that sound good together, and doesn’t always worry so much about their literal meaning (supposedly he took the line “We hustle in London” from a T-shirt he saw). The sense I get from this song, though, is a girl who chased the supposed idyllic American Dream to her own detriment. Instead of selling her soul for the big brass ring, perhaps she may have ultimately been happier living a quiet, simpler life with people who love her for who she is, not who she tried to become.

This could have been a vindictive, I-told-you-so track. But, again, Fallon rescues it from the edge of despair by employing the Bible verse. To me, that shows the singer still loves the woman he’s singing about (friendly or romanctic, doesn’t really matter), and remains committed to her, no matter how many mistakes she’s made. This theme of accepting mistakes and moving on runs throughout the record, culminating in the final track, “We Did It When We Were Young.”

I still waver on whether “Lower Chelsea” is a great song or just a really good one. Either way, it’s the type of song only a band striving for greatness has the balls to write.


Tomorrow: Side Two