Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

Sorry folks; it's just been too busy lately to keep up with new posts with any regularity. Fall brings hope of less commotion, so stay tuned till then for, perhaps, a return to more frequent posts.

With that mea culpa out of the way, we can turn our attention to the latest release from the act that has received the most attention in this space: the New Jersey-based rock quartet, The Gaslight Anthem and their fourth full-length album, Handwritten – out on July 24 on Mercury Records.

As we discussed in reviewing their previous effort, 2010's American Slang (NMT), the four-piece unit has been on a gradual march away from the Springsteen-via-The Clash fusion that dominated their early work such as 2007's Sink or Swim and 2008's The '59 Sound (NMT). And while both The Boss and the quintessential punk band reside at the functional heart of everything the band does, the ongoing shift to a more distinctive sound and style is marked by slower, harder and more personal material than before, all apparent moreso than ever on Handwritten.

Of course, with such a lead-in, the first couple tracks are naturally boilerplate replication's of their original approach. The kinetic "45" features the driving punk energy of The Clash blended with frontman Brain Fallon's Springsteenian narrative nostalgia. This isn't to say its recidivist work from Fallon and company; if you were previously drawn by the group's sound, more of the same is certainly no objection. It, and the follow-up title track will fit in nicely in the extended catalog alongside similar hard-charging numbers like "The Patient Ferris Wheel" or "We Came to Dance."

The real departure emerges on the third track, "Here Comes My Man." The Byrds'-style jangly eight-string electric guitar from Alex Rosamilia and Fallon's acoustic recalls Mellancamp heartland rock, a step away from the more coastal punk sound. Although Fallon has delivered acoustic material before on Gaslight Anthem records, those efforts we more solo, singer/songwriter compositions rather than woven onto the full band structure. At the same time, the slower pace and oldies rock chorus of "sha-la-la la" hardly is stock issue recasting either.

Meanwhile, "Mulholland Drive" is darker and harder than its preceding counterpart, with the rhythm section of bassist Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz at the forefront over Fallon's chugging guitar. Rosamilia does brighten the mood with his signature bright and high-fretboard figures during the verses along with a wailing solo at the bridge – a rarity for a band that doesn't feature much instrumental variation. The trend towards harder and slower continues on the bluesy "Keepsake," again allowing Rosamilia to move center stage. The number also introduces blood as a recurring theme across the 11-track collection, imagery that connects hearts, emotions and actions. The concept finds its obvious peak on "Too Much Blood," even more plodding and crunching than its predecessors. Here, Fallon revisits his throaty blues howl previously heard on older numbers like "The Diamond Street Church Choir" and "We're Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Dinner."   

The shimmering briskness of their previous life isn't abandoned altogether, however. A pair of later-appearing cuts – the appropriately succinctly-titled "Howl" and "Desire" – both recapture the sprinting pace of the Gaslight oeuvre and are completely enjoyable for that reason. But they're evened out by the sludgy "Biloxi Parish" – featuring a growling bass line from Levine – and the moody "Mae" to demonstrate the group's commitment to its darker direction. Closing out the affair is another Brian Fallon Sings! acoustic contribution in the deceptively apolitical "National Anthem."

Come for: "45"
Stay for: "Handwritten"
You'll be surprised by: "Here Comes My Man"

P.S. – In addition to Fallon's extensive work with The Gaslight Anthem, we also covered his Horrible Crowes (NMT) sideproject last year.

P.P.S. – The album's deluxe version features interesting covers of Nirvana's nearly-comical "Sliver" – with its memorable "grandma take me home" chorus – and Petty's "You Got Lucky" along with the original "Blue Dahlia," which is more in keeping with the band's original signature sound.

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