Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Gaslight Anthem

I will concede that my first selection doesn't dig too deep into the underground. However, that does not mean a sufficient number of people are aware of this fine young New Jersey quartet. Besides, lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon is at The Black Cat on Saturday night, and you should go.

To understand The Gaslight Anthem, draw a triangle. At its apex, position the name Bruce Springsteen. To its left pinnacle, assign Joe Strummer and The Clash. At it's counterpoint on the bottom right, reserve a spot for Paul Westerberg and The Replacements. Fill-in the area of the shape with a patchwork of Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and The Counting Crows.

Hailing from New Brunswick, New Jersey, the guiding presence of The Boss should surprise none. He is Gaslight's North Star, spreading his influence through lead singer Brian Fallon's familiar but not threadbare cache of characters. There's Broken-Bones Matilda, Wagin' Matty, the Tin Man's heart and The Old Gospel Choir, plus enough Bobby Jeans, Marias and Virginias to make up at least 1/6 of the E Street Band. Fallon parlays his Little Eden off his hero's Asbury Park and drifts as easily from the 1930s to 1962 as Springsteen connected Atlantic City to Nebraska. For his part, The Boss has already seen the light of his could-be successors.

While the New Jersey legend builds the world from which Fallon stages his scenes, Gaslight holds less true to his musical direction. Rather than the six-plus minute rock-jazz-gospel shuffle where Springsteen erects his tent revivals, the four-piece outfit hews closer to the mold established by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. His turn-on-a-dime tempo breakdown not even halfway through "Say I Won't (Recognize)" – off the outfit's debut offering, Sink or Swim – could just as easily spilled out of side three of Sandanista!, while tracks like "1930" or "The Patient Ferris Wheel" are driven by a white Epiphone-style punk energy Springsteen would never approach.

And yet Gaslight is more than a punkified Darkness on the Edge of Town. There's a milltown undercurrent of self-pity that emerges through the cracks between Springsteen and Stummer, more akin to Paul Westerberg and the Minneapolis collection of rust belt instigators like Bob Mould and Craig Finn. On Gaslight's second full-length effort, The 59 Sound's "Red at Night," Fallon stakes claim to a narrative that could have likewise emerged from Buffalo or Dayton, singing,
I was born in a town where the rivers flow freeze / on a January night when the cold winds freeze / I got an Irish name and an injury / Blessing and a curse cast down on me
Of course, the group's influences extend far past a tripartite score of predecessors. Fallon makes no secret of his deep affection for Tom Petty, referencing the venerable Americana rocker on several occasions, yet filtering his Southern Accents through the Counting Crows' "Round Here" on "High Lonesome" – a pairing most contemporary tunesmiths wouldn't conjure. Meanwhile, the Elvis Costello connection on "Miles Davis & The Cool" is only steps away from the same imagery of a fire that's both destructive and restoring that Billy Joe Armstrong employed on 21st Century Breakdown. But Fallon and his comrades take a U2 – or, if you prefer, Dear Leader – turn on 59 Sound closer, The Backseat, with its Edgian flotilla of delayed arpeggios.

In all, its quite compelling, if not totally original. For much as the thesis demands an anthesis, from which comes the synthesis, from Springsteen to Strummer to Fallon lies a pretty solid ground of material that many might consider the heart of rock and roll.

Come for: "The 59 Sound"
Stay for: "We Came to Dance"
You'll be surprised by: "Red at Night"

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