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

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