You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you sure can judge a band by one. Who and what a musician chooses to cover says a lot.
Just about all of my all-time favorite bands are great at playing other people’s songs—it's a sign of respect, humility, integrity, and sense of history. Johnny Cash introduced himself to an entirely new generation of fans with his series of American recordings; Pearl Jam essentially retains ownership of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” by this point; Bruce Springsteen’s “Stump the E Street Band” segments on tour are absolutely insane; and have you ever heard The White Stripes’ version of “Jolene”? About the only band I love that sucks at covers is U2.
The Gaslight Anthem make no bones about their musical influences, so it should come as no surprise that just about every set they play includes at least one choice cover. But until now you’d only be able to hear those selections live in concert or on an audience bootleg. This month, though, they released an “iTunes Session,” which is a collection of seven songs recorded live in a studio. It consists of four covers, two original Gaslight songs so reworked they may as well be covers, and one track, “Our Fathers Sons,” that doesn’t appear on any of the band’s previous releases.
The covers are, in a word, amazing. The set opens with the pipe bomb of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”—well, in reality it’s more like Gaslight covering Pearl Jam’s version of the song. No keyboards here. This may be blasphemy but I think TGA have outdone their predecessors here and delivered the best “Baba” cover I’ve ever heard. Their replication of the core synth riff on guitar is outstandingly crisp, and drummer Benny Horowitz thunders away on drums like a man possessed by the natural charisma of Keith Moon. When frontman Brian Fallon unleashes those unmistakable first words, “Out here in the fields,” magic happens. I saw Gaslight perform this song last summer in Columbus and was blown away by it; you have to have guts way down deep to take on this icon of rock and roll. They killed it then, and they conquer it here.
As if “Baba” wasn’t enough, Gaslight rolls right into spectacular versions of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” and Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust.” Both of these tracks are performed with the attention to detail only an obsessive fan could bring to the table—right down to Fallon chipping in with Eddie Vedder’s “yeah, yeah” at just the right moment.
And yet these tracks don’t feel like mere play-by-numbers affairs, either. Perhaps it comes down to Fallon’s charcoal growl, but these are unmistakably Gaslight Anthem efforts. There’s a verve and vigor to them, a spirit of unabashed, honest fervor that infuses everything the band touches. The only cut on the whole EP I could do without is the version of “House of the Rising Sun”—not because they don’t do an excellent job, but I just don’t care much for that song and it doesn’t play to their strengths (too slow, too heavy). I’d much rather have an official version of Hot Water Music’s “Trusty Chords.”
The remaining three songs are nearly just as good. “Boxer” is one of the hardest rockers from Gaslight’s last album, only here it’s given a stripped-down, country treatment that works surprisingly well (the mark of great songwriting, I say). “The Navesink Banks,” meanwhile, is a Gaslight icon from their first album, 2007’s “Sink or Swim”; here it’s given the heavier interpretation previously only heard in the live setting—electric guitars and pounding drums on the outro that give it a more potent feel.
The remaining track, “Our Fathers Sons,” is an outtake from the band’s breakthrough record, 2008’s “The ’59 Sound.” It has a bit of a Johnny Cash vibe and sounds like it came from the same jam session that spawned “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” “Sons” just goes to show what a monster that album was if this little gem couldn’t make the cut. It feels like home.
This band is at yet another crossroads in its relatively short life. They just signed to Mercury Records and are in the process of writing and recording their next album, due in 2012. A little release like this gives me confidence that no matter how things might change for The Gaslight Anthem, the things I love about them stay the same.
Favorite Track: “Baba O’Riley”
Least Favorite Track: “House of the Rising Sun”
Go buy it here