Friday, June 18, 2010

Gaslight Anthem: The Everyfan's Band

I have debated this philosophical question about music: does all music - and all art forms for that matter - have heart? I would like to believe that all music comes from a personal and authentic place and, whether or not emotion resonates, is in the ear of the each beholder. While this is a nice thought - and all artists may have the best intentions - not all music is equal in this department. Some songwriters write more personally and bare more soul. Some musicians play like their lives depend on winning over every last audience member. Some bands are driven to uphold a standard set by the rock heroes who inspired their path. Some music has more heart - much more heart - and that is what I think of every time I listen to the Gaslight Anthem.

This week, the Gaslight Anthem released “American Slang.” With this third album, the band retains all of the passion and heart of the previous albums but demonstrates a more mature and controlled delivery. The earlier Gaslight songs, from the “Sink or Swim” album, were firmly planted in the punk rock genre. Brian Fallon’s raw vocal on that album fit well with the aggressive drum-driven instrumentation. Since that album, they have added elements of post-punk, American folk, and classic rock, while largely retaining their punk sound. Beginning with “The ’59 Sound” album, and now with “American Slang,” the band has become much more skilled at crafting melodies that compliment the lyrical weight of the songs. On every album Brian Fallon has written thoughtful and poetic lyrics, and it now feels like the instrumentation has eased up ever so slightly, from the aggressive punk rock of the earlier days, to allow the songs the breathing room they deserve.

The new album does not disappoint. It solidifies what I have come to believe is the soul of the Gaslight Anthem and what gives their music so much heart: they, and Fallon in particular as the band lyricist, view the world through a rock and roll kaleidoscope, reflecting in each album shades of tribute and admiration for rock and roll’s intimate and powerful grip on each of us. Their love and passion as devoted music fans radiates through each song, suggesting the belief that rock and roll is our teacher, philosopher, and our constant companion through sorrowed or joyful times. The authenticity of their albums comes from the highest level of respect for the impact that rock and roll has in our lives.

You took it all gracefully on the chin, knowing that the beatings had to someday end / You found the bandages inside the band and the stitches on the radio

“The ’59 Sound,” the Gaslight Anthem’s sophomore album, was my first exposure to the band a couple of years ago. I was hooked by the very first listen because I felt that I was hearing a musical manifestation of my own fandom. That album was a treasure trove of clues and references to Dylan, Springsteen, Petty, and many kings of Motown, some very obvious and others less so. Not only is that album musically outstanding, the lasting impression it made for me is that this is a band that understood what it is to be humbled by the emotion that a single song is capable of triggering. Like me, they seemingly found escapism in lyrics and comfort in melody.

Did you grow up lonesome and one of a kind? / Were your records all you had to pass the time?
-The Queen of Lower Chelsea

With “American Slang,” the band brings all elements of instrumentation in balance with the vocal in a way that lends more emotion to the delivery of the songs. The rhythm section, made up of drummer Ben Horowitz and bassist Alex Levine, has found a much broader tempo range on this album, and comparing the tempo on songs like “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” and “Orphans” demonstrate that variation. Alex Rosamilia delivers excellent guitar lines throughout the album, but in particular on “Stay Lucky” and “Old Haunts.” In fact, “Old Haunts” is pretty close to perfection in my book with (relatively) delicate guitar work and lyrics like God help the man who says “If you’d have known me when…”/old haunts are for forgotten ghosts.

Much has been made about the similarities in sound of the Gaslight Anthem to Bruce Springsteen, with good reason. Like Springsteen, the Gaslight Anthem is a blue-collar band from New Jersey. They write poetically versed, energetic rock songs about simpler times, and the hopes and broken dreams of the everyman. I think the most important similarity is more elusive, and has to do with the silver lining the listener is able to take from a Gaslight song. More than how they sound, or where they are from, the comparison with Springsteen may have more to do with how the music makes us feel. Like Springsteen, the Gaslight Anthem reminds us that restlessness, forsaken dreams, and loneliness are all fundamental experiences of the human condition; we are not alone in feeling them, and there is something better yet off in the horizon. And in the meantime, find your escapism in music - just throw on some Miles Davis and let “The Cool” wash over you; you’ll feel better.

We were orphans before we were ever the sons of your songs
. –Orphans

The new album is not homage to the Gaslight Anthem’s influences, as was “The ’59 Sound.” Really, you can only make an album so boldly in tribute once in a career. Nonetheless, the clues are there. With greater subtlety, “American Slang” still reveals the Gaslight Anthem as a band of die-hardest of music fans that will continue to churn out the heartfelt soundtrack of our own music fandom.


Related Post: The Gaslight Anthem: Bands Paying Homage

Friday, June 4, 2010

Post-Punk Style Bassists

I’ve come to accept that anytime I see a “Top Bass Players” countdown, it probably won’t have any of my favorite players listed there. I understand why, too. Many of the players that end up on countdown lists are impressively fast, often slap-style, and worthy of a 2 minute mid-song solos. Funk, progressive, and metal or hard rock genres do serve to highlight the speed and range of a talented and aggressive bass player, and that is why such greats as Flea and Les Claypool, deservedly, always make the lists.

My preferences in bass players are those who play the post-punk genre of rock and roll. I love those warm, melodic bass lines that are the backbone for songs by Joy Division, the Smiths, the Cure, similar bands that emerged in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and the revisionist bands that popped up in just the last decade. I realize why they are not included in “best” lists- they are not the fastest, or have the most range, and they certainly do not “shred.”

Still, it always surprises me a little that the bass players of the post-punk style of play never get much love; I (admittedly, a bass whore) hear the bass guitar as the primary sound within this fantastic genre of music. I have yet to find a very clear definition of what characterizes the post-punk genre of rock music; some descriptions seem to merge every genre under the sun that occurred in England within a specific period of time, which - as the name suggests - followed the punk explosion of the late 70’s. I may have a narrow view of what is the post-punk sound: heavy and prominent bass and drum, punctuated by lighter and intricate guitar work, and sometimes accompanied by synthesizer sounds. Some might say that darker lyrical themes are also a signature of the genre, but I think that both light and dark lyrical themes run through all genres, post-punk included.

What I hear more than anything, and feel is the signature style of the post-punk genre, is the bass playing. The bass guitar does not play a supporting role to the drumming; it plays a starring role in the overall sound. It independently drives the melody as a rhythm guitar would in other genres, creating the rhythmic pattern that serves as the song’s foundation. Post-punk playing rests in the middle between percussionist-supporting bass playing and lead-guitar style bass playing. The players that end up on “Greatest Player” lists tend to play in a more prominent lead-guitar style. However, one ambassador for the post-punk style should be on more “Greatest Bass Player” lists, and that ambassador is Peter Hook. As the pioneer of post-punk bass playing, he launched a unique and much imitated sound in rock and roll.

Every now and then I like to share my overall appreciation of bass players and, although they may not be considered the best, the post-punkers are my sentimental favorites. Below are a few songs with awesome bass lines from some fantastic post-punk and post-punk revisionist players.

Peter Hook (Joy Division) – “Disorder”
I could pick any song in the Joy Division catalog to highlight Hook’s playing. I love how his playing brings levity to Ian Curtis' dark lyrical and vocal style. What else can I say? He is the man.

Andy Rourke (The Smiths) - “This Charming Man”
The Smiths were a tough sell for me because of Morrissey’s voice. I listen because of the guitar work of Rourke and Johnny Marr.

Simon Gallop (The Cure) – “Just Like Heaven”
As a kid, I didn’t know who the Cure was, but I knew it was fun to dance around to this song. I now realize the bass is the reason why.

Mark Stoermer (The Killers) – “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” Live
Stoermer is a versatile player. He, along with the rest of his band drifts in and out of genres. “Jenny” feels like a post-punk style song to me, and it is one of my favorite of his bass lines.

Carlos Dengler (Interpol) – “Evil”
This is a great, thought-provoking song that I probably would not have paid much attention to if not for that bass intro. It is speculated that the song is about serial killers Rosemary and Fred West, hence the title.

Alright, that’s enough of the post-punk genre for a while. I’m going to go listen to some Charles Mingus.