Monday, June 14, 2010

Gaslight Anthem: American Slang

This week's featured release is also the first post to revisit a group or artist already profiled. In this case, that group was also the subject of my first post to this blog. If you're not already familiar with the Gaslight Anthem, I'd recommend you (re)visit that post. Accordingly, I won't spend much time here on the background details of the New Jersey-based foursome. Instead, we'll take a thorough look at their third full-length release, American Slang, released today.

Hoping to present an album marking a different direction than found on Gaslight's previous releases, frontman Brian Fallon largely succeeds in delivering a significant departure from their preceding efforts. Mostly gone are the meaty chord progressions, collections of characters named Maria or Mary or Estella, and the singalong refrains. Instead, Fallon and his mates focus on a more subdued template in American Slang, much like fellow earnest troubadours The Hold Steady did on their recent Heaven is Whenever. Fallon himself admitted the group's intentions were to slow down their sound similar to the work of one of their heroes, Joe Strummer, on London Calling. The collection's introductory and namesake track accounts for that transition from their previous sound – one that will always be there should they need to call upon it:

here's where we died that time last year / and here's where the angels and devils meet / and you can dance with the queen if you need /
and she will always keep your cards

Inasmuch as the group's sound evolves on the 10-track offering, so too does Fallon's gradual shift away from New Jersey to a setting that's both less specific and less familiar than his previous narratives. Tracks such as "Diamond Church Street Choir" and "Spirit of Jazz" with their loose shuffle could easily be stationed in the delta haunts of Memphis or New Orleans, while "Queen of Lower Chelsea" pays homage to Strummer's London. The first of these tracks demonstrates a heretofore unheard dimension of Fallon's vocals, settling into some amalgamation of James Brown and Bob Seger. Regardless of the location, none of the numbers would have easily fit – musically or lyrically – on 2008's The 59 Sound or 2007's Sink or Swim which were planted firmly in the concrete jungles of the Garden State.

However, as concerted is their effort to break the chains of Marley that Fallon described in "The 59 Sound," the call of the Boss will never be that far, as witnessed in tracks such as "Stay Lucky" – the American Slang number most similar to their previous sound – "Orphans" and "Boxer," all of which will have kids jampacked into clubs plenty to stomp and sing along with this summer and fall. "Old Haunts," found later in the track list, is in the closest vicinity of E Street, residing somewhere between "10th Avenue Freeze Out" and "Glory Days," but at the same time does battle with the Springsteen legacy, with Fallon almost casting aside those influences by singing, "don't sing me your songs about the good times / those days are gone and you should just let them go / And God help the man who says / if you'd have known me when..." It's an interesting take from a band that's working through its maturation through it work, and that sense of a perpetual struggle as the halcyon days of youth begin to fade is the album's unifying theme.

Because even though there are fewer trademark Gaslight anthems here, that doesn't mean there are none. Through these tunes, we hear about "the sons of regret," the "steam, heat, clang and the dark," and the "beatings that had someday to end." All this marks classic Gaslight territory and tempo, ensuring a good third of the album will satisfy longtime fans. But they might not be so sure about closing number, "We Did It When We Were Young," which darkly stumbles closer to The Cure than The Clash.

Come for: "Stay Lucky"
Stay for: "Old Haunts"
You'll be surprised by: "Diamond Church Street Choir"

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