July 23, 2012

Album Review: The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten

Backboned by punks, acclaimed by the indie elite and even hitting a chord with your dad and his record collection, the Gaslight Anthem have effortlessly stumbled upon the right formula in keeping the masses baited with their brand of nostalgia-laden blue collar rock 'n roll. After two very successful and solid albums on independent punk label SideOneDummy, the Jersey quartet has -- to no surprise of anyone -- been called up to the major leagues at Mercury Records for their latest release Handwritten. An indie band's sound is expected to expand with this territory, but the Gaslight Anthem's has arguably been tailor made for the scenario from the get go. Where 2008's breakthrough The '59 Sound established them as serious anthem makers, 2010's American Slang showed us that frontman Brian Fallon could pen a tune with lyrics that stand up to the best of the Springsteen's or Paul Westerberg. The Gaslight Anthem have batted off comparisons with their luminaries for years by unabashedly embracing them, but on Handwritten, the barreling New Brunswick band lays claim to their style by setting their influences in the rear view mirror.

Handwritten was recorded with frequent post-millennial Springsteen producer Brendan O'Brien (The Rising, Magic, Working On a Dream,) but don't forget his massive resumé also includes working on albums from a wealth of modern day arena seat fillers such as Pearl Jam and the Killers, the former being a band which frontman Brian Fallon says provided him with the blueprint as to where he wants to bring their band. A bulk of Handwritten includes tracks that can do just that, super-charged to a new panache of the rock spectrum with chunky four chord riffs beginning with the fiery lead single "45," the subsequent call-and-response in the album's title track and later on in "Howl." Even when the guitar strings smolder into the ashes of Fallon's raspy growl during Handwritten's less kinetic tracks (the David Lynch-inspired "Mulholland Drive," "Keepsake," "Biloxi Parish,") there's still a certain degree of impending combustibility that often occurs in Alex Rosamilia's six-string solos and breakdowns.

One reason I'd say the Gaslight Anthem has had a tough time disassociating themselves from their heroes has been the constant references to those artists in their songs. While they're friendly nods to the Boss and Joe Strummer, they also click a sudden realization of the parallels. To his strength, Handwritten is Fallon's strongest effort to date as a songwriter, as he's still writing stories about lost loves, car rides and skipping town, but not so much in an era where these songs' characters lived decades ago or existed in other peoples' songs. The intimacy sparkles despite the heart's loss in "Here Comes My Man" ("Maybe your work will love you / When I'm just not there to hold you / Maybe your pride can be your companion / But I just won't be there to stand for it...") and the feelings of disconnect Fallon speaks of are profound in the nimble closer "National Anthem" ("Now everybody lately is living up in space / Flying through transmissions on invisible airwaves...") Instead of re-telling stories he's heard in the past, Mr. Fallon confidently sets forth his own present-minded tails that make you forget about those other guys'.

Handwritten is the climactic mark of a band who've been making confident strives toward something bigger with each new release. In some listeners' eyes, the Gaslight Anthem may never be able to shake the tired comparisons to Springsteen or Tom Petty, the Replacements or the Clash, but those are the people who aren't listening hard enough. After all, you could really say that any band out there today sounds like someone else, and so it just so happens that these Jersey boys' favorite bands are a lot of other peoples', too. Where their major label debut gets it so right, though, is how complete of an album it is: The radio-ready rippers, an extra ounce of spitfire, Brian Fallon's top-notch storytelling and the rest of the band rising above to back him up every step of the way. Perhaps the Gaslight Anthem bring so many of the greats to mind simple because they remind us of what rock 'n roll at its best sounds like.

The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten will be released July 24, 2012 on Mercury Records.

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