Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Horrible Crowes

The debut post of this blog in January, 2010 covered the sophomore release from the New Jersey-based punk/folk troubadours, The Gaslight Anthem. I returned that June to review that band's third effort, American Slang. And littered throughout the posts since that first Gaslight review are recurring references to the band. So, its safe to say that the group maintains a seminal role in informing the material most commonly highlighted here. In that sense, it should come as no surprise, then, that the Horrible Crowes side project of Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon should receive due attention. Fallon, along with longtime Gaslight guitar technician Ian Perkins formed the duo as an outlet for Fallon's creative output that stayed beyond the more aggressive posture of Gaslight, and the pair released first full-length offering, Elsie, on September 6 on Side One Dummy Records.

Of course, given your blogger's propensity to gravitate to Fallon's prime project in both reviews and references, I won't spend much time chronicling his overall milieu. Check the previous reviews for the backstory. Instead, I'll focus on what's different from the more well-know Gaslight sound, and explore some of divergent influences found across Elsie's dozen tracks.

It seems as if one of Fallon's primary objectives in his work with Perkins is to dispel the notion that the polar influences of Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer constitute the bulk of his musical foundation. Instead, he seems to undertake a mission demonstrating that Tom Waits and Van Morrison have just as much sway in his sonic and tonal philosophy as the former luminaries guided his time with Gaslight. To that end, Fallon downgrades the tempo from Gaslight's trundling pace to a more measured trot, and his lyricism is less clever narrative and blunt emotion, instead taking a much more subtle path.

This much is true from the outset, with the exceedingly somber "Last Rites." The droning whole notes from the piano and hazy organs are already a marked departure from anything Fallon orchestrated in Gaslight. Previously, Fallon has been the narrator of hardscrabble characters – Marys and Veronicas and Estellas – who, while flawed, are redeemed through their determined spirit. Here, that pervasive optimism is largely stripped bare by a more stark reality. As he explains in the opener, "Call up your boyfriends from out by the ocean / While I get my last rites read by a thief. From here, it's not a great leap to reach Waits' own "Everything Goes to Hell," complete with similar seaside imagery.

The hesitating "Sugar" is likewise morose, but more fleshed-out. The western-via-California-mission guitar cut by Perkins adds to the desolate scene of the loneliness and fading emotional stability of its subject, one whose shaking hands and dream-addled mind are not cured by the "sugar" of friendship and concern of Fallon's narrator. It's haunting and a touch troubling, but entirely genuine – a spirit not easily conveyed by the hard-driving and emboldening Gaslight.

Of course, to expect Fallon and Perkins to shed entirely the mantle of their day jobs would not be fair, or necessarily wanted. After all, Fallon and his trio of compadres in Gaslight make outstanding music, so an appetizer here and there is not unwelcome. In this case, it comes via the first single, "Behold the Hurricane." Fallon is at his most full-throated and comfortable here, and along with the number's stiff drums and churning guitars, it could have resided quite comfortably on American Slang. If you're looking for an easier transition from the familiar Gaslight territory before diving deeper into Elsie, you'd have no trouble starting here.

But just as quickly as Fallon returns to the well, he departs it, with the bluesy interloper "I Witnessed a Crime." A thick Hammond organ line grounds the late-night saga. The Van Morrison flavor begins to trickle in here, with a much looser vocal delivery from Fallon, and Perkins' whining guitars. And Fallon firmly stations himself at Morrison's R&B lamppost on the following "Go Tell Everybody." The jumping verses loosen the ground for the stage-shaking gospel chorus, chock full of back-up singers, organ vibes and near James Brown wails from Fallon, before the bridge introduces strings and horns – such augmentations never found within a country mile on any previous Gaslight production.

After the slow, deliberate funeral march of "Cherry Blossoms," "Ladykiller" may be the record's second most compelling track behind "Behold the Hurricane." Fallon fires up the pipes after a building intro and settles into a jangly ballad – a venue not often exploited by Gaslight, and one that meshes well with Fallon's expressive delivery. Later on, "Crush" could be another Gaslight contribution, again one that would be best suited for American Slang, rather than the band's more hard-charging early barnburners. But the listener does feel a bit for Fallon's vocal chords on "Mary Ann," the sludgy and gnarly devotional, where he exerts every atom of grit from his voicebox and often overtakes the tune to the point where it becomes distracting.

The collection winds up with the darker, slower and quieter trio of "Black Betty and the Moon," "Blood Loss" and "I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together." Of these, the former is the most enjoyable, with its piano and acoustic guitar background pacing a gentle stroll – something you might expect from Waits with a bit more up-front melody or Morrison in his Astral Weeks phase. The second of these is moody with a bit more screaming from Fallon, while the latter is trippy and floaty – the sort of thing that would never appear on a Gaslight record.

Come for: "Behold the Hurricane"
Stay for: "Ladykiller"
You'll be surprised by: "Go Tell Everybody"

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