Friday, September 23, 2011

CD of the Day: ‘Elsie,’ The Horrible Crowes (2011)

I’m most drawn to musicians who are like me in one very specific way: They’re music fans, too. They’re passionate about it. They understand the obsessive mania of setlist craft and b-sides and cover choices and … all that geeky stuff. Some pay homage to their influences more obviously than others, but nobody wears their heroes’ tattoos on their sleeves more openly and proudly than Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem. 

Many of those favorites perfectly fit his band’s brand of classically tinged power punk. The Clash … Social Distortion … that guy with the one-letter band name. Fallon’s new side project, The Horrible Crowes, is a place to vent all the rest. 

The closest thing to a Gaslight track on “Elsie” is “Behold the Hurricane,” the most uptempo, pure rock-and-roll moment on the album. And it is a winner, probably thanks in no small part to the fact that TGA guitarist Alex Rosamila appears on the cut. After that, though, there are no boundaries for THC, as Fallon dips into his bag of songwriter tricks from the likes of Greg Dulli, Tom Waits, and a smattering of other “dark” influences. The songs still sound like Brian Fallon songs, just filtered through a different amp.

“Sugar” sets the album’s tone perfectly with its murky, understated concoction of hushed vocals and restrained instrumentation all punctuated with choruses of sunlight. “Ladykiller” is the shining centerpiece of the record; I swore I wouldn’t mention Springsteen but this fantastic, breezily midtempo track just begs to be compared to anything off “Tunnel of Love” (“One Step Up,” in particular). My goodness this cut goes down smooth. “Cherry Blossoms” finds Fallon exploring his country/blues side, while funky “I Witnessed a Crime” is some sort of crazy organ-propelled speakeasy soul song. You ain’t gonna hear anything like this on a Gaslight album, that’s for sure. "Blood Loss," with its monster power chords and huge choruses, anchors the back of the record.

“Black Betty & the Moon” is my favorite song on the album. I love the whole package: the twinkling acoustic guitars, the minimalist arrangement, and, most especially, the melody that fits Fallon’s voice like a glove. Whatever range this is, he should never leave it. 

He puts the wraps on “Elsie” with the hypnotic chant of “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together.” Fallon said this album is meant to be heard all of a piece, and this is a demonstration of why; it’s a wonderful comedown of a track, easing you out of the listening experience with grace and a car’s ignition.

The biggest problem with “Elsie” is, ironically, Fallon himself. He’s simply too positive a guy to write his best work under these intentionally dark conditions. I attribute this in large part to his Christian faith—not that Christians don’t face dark times, certainly, but we are imbued with hope and light everlasting, and that doesn’t fit too well with super-sadsack songs. What separates Fallon’s work with Gaslight from other lyricists is his ability not just to empathize with the downtrodden but to offer them a way out of their misery. He doesn’t sound at home in his own skin here, which was sorta the point, I guess, but that doesn’t make it great. The songs are lyrically dense with snatches of memorable lines, but it’s difficult to add them all up and get a sense for what they're trying to say unless you sit with headphones and the liner notes in your hands for multiple listens. The overall theme of the record is clear enough—the dissolution of a relationship in the most painful way possible—but in specifics, Fallon's never been this intentionally obtuse. I respect the artistry on display, but from a lyrical perspective “Elsie” doesn’t leave me with songs to cherish and absorb and make a part of my life the way previous Fallon work has. It’s just too depressing.

What’s more, Fallon stretches his voice to the breaking point too many times, and it comes off as unnaturally strained—like at times he’s trying too hard to sound desperate. For anyone familiar with the high note he hits on Gaslight’s “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” imagine that stretched out over multiple songs. I’m thinking specifically of tracks like “Go Tell Everybody,” “Crush,” and “Mary Ann.” Musically, there’s not a bad entry on “Elsie,” but Fallon’s delivery doesn’t work every single time. 

I’d much rather fault a guy for trying too hard than not trying at all. This is the type of album I reserve the right to change my mind about in a week or a year’s time. And in the end, “Elsie”—with its warts and winners—is the latest example of why Brian Fallon is my favorite songwriter on the planet.

Grade: B
Favorite Track: “Black Betty & the Moon”
Least Favorite Track: “Go Tell Everybody”