June 16, 2010

Album Review: The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang

Wearing the influence of other artists well is a tough sell in the music biz. You either put yourself at risk of becoming a parody of something much better and more original, succeed by beating your inspirations at their own game or manage to take what you like best about their sound and put your own spin on it. For New Brunswick, NJ's The Gaslight Anthem, they teeter somewhere between the latter two. Their 2008 breakthrough album, The '59 Sound, drew comparisons to a punked out version of Bruce Springsteen's work, given its focus on blue collar life, Americana heartache and nostalgic memories. While some within the punk scene (who had until then considered The Gaslight Anthem the new darlings) criticized the band for taking on a more cleaner, iconic sound, it was difficult for the rest of the music world to care since The Boss himself endorsed what they were doing (He even made a surprise guest appearance on stage with his fellow New Jersey natives during their set at 2009's Glastonbury Festival.) Much like one-time punk favs, Against Me!, The Gaslight Anthem has transcended the genre they started off in and their latest album, American Slang, proves that maybe these reformed punks are the future of American rock and roll altogether.

The title, American Slang, is not only the name of the album and title track but it serves as a double-meaning to where The Gaslight Anthem are at this stage in their young careers. Front man, Brian Fallon, is certainly en route to becoming one of music's preeminent songwriters. He may not be pretentiously eloquent or use fancy adjectives in his writing, but like his hero, Springsteen, it's this straight-to-the-point lyricism that makes each song that much more earnest like the American life it portrays. Last time we checked, Fallon was only in his mid-20s, but whether it be his love of nostalgia or a brilliant imagination, he seems to have a knack for recreating a version of yesteryear that you'd expect coming from a 78-year-old. Fallon continues to use thematic consistency through his lyrics, as well, where we again hear about lost loves ("The Queen of Lower Chelsea,") weathering hard economic times ("Orphans,") the American Dream ("Boxer") and The Cool ("Bring It On") -- a homage to Miles Davis and something we were introduced to back in the band's back catalog that seems to personify everything that an American male strives to become as he climbs the ladders of success.

Upon first listen, you'll hear that a majority of their new material isn't as immediately accessible as its predecessor, but bears the potential to be tenfold more rewarding. The '59 Sound as a whole is a great album, but contains more highlights marked by pop rock tunes filled with catchy choruses and glossy riffs. A great song is a great song, but in the grand scheme of listenability, pop music can easily wear outs its welcome after a few spins while an album that grows and develops with each additional listen is one that sticks with you for some time. The Gaslight Anthem have focused their attention on playing rock music at a higher level of integrity, confidence and with substance on American Slang. The opening and title track, "American Slang," is fleshed out with a great deal of backing vocals from the rest of the band to compliment Fallon's weathered voice. "Diamond Church Street Choir" has these Jersey boys trading in their raucous rock-punk hybrid brand for eased, chill finger snaps and a simple plucked guitar riff. The aforementioned "Bring It On" alongside the album's closer, "We Did It When We Were Young" are perhaps the two best heart breakers that The Gaslight Anthem have ever written, strengthened by Alex Rosamilia's soaring guitars and Benny Horowitz's climactic drumming. The pop rock punk hooks are still very much alive in American Slang, but they definitely take the back seat to some serious fine-tuning in the instrument arrangements.

While The Gaslight Anthem are still not reinventing rock and roll, the important thing is that they're getting better at how they're playing it. American Slang is the most solid collection of nostalgic rock-meets-punk rebellion to date from these New Jersey boys. The comparisons to The Boss are still evident, but thanks to Fallon's firmer grasp on song writing and a band motivated to own up to their instruments, it's safe to say that they've at least put their own spin on things.

The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang is available now on SideOneDummy Records.

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