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
-Boxer

“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.

-AZ


Related Post: The Gaslight Anthem: Bands Paying Homage

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