Thursday, July 22, 2010

Playing in the Shadows of the Boss

The Gaslight Anthem roars to life with American Slang

Even though I have an iPod  (mostly for classroom use, so I can illustrate a point with a song while teaching), I'm one of those geezers who still buys and listens to CDs. That's largely because my dinosaur Honda Accord -- which is about the only place in my life where I still have room for music -- has a CD player, and because I'm of that generation for whom buying and collecting sound artifacts still exerts a residual pull on my imagination. Having performed the requisite demographic identification here, I'll now say that for me, the summer of 2010 will be the summer of The Gaslight Anthem. The band's latest album, American Slang, is a pure shot of adrenaline that will, among other things, keep you surging on the highway, or maybe just awake at a traffic light.

I'm particularly enamored of the title track of American Slang. It begins with a few measures of throbbing drums and bass that sets up a five-note riff that drives the melody in the best pop tradition -- a tradition in this case of the guitar-based, post-punk variety.  Lead singer Brian Fallon sounds like a wounded animal, bleeding but ferally alive. As far as I can tell, he's unlucky in love, but he ties his romantic grief to the zeitgeist in a not-quite cryptic way:

Look at the damage
the fortunes came for richer men
while we're left with the gallows
waiting for us liars to come down and hang

In the chorus, the protagonist say he "called for my father/but my father had died," literally and figuratively alluding to a loss of faith. This reference, and the one alluding to liars, suggests a Catholic sense of sin.

But it's the music more than the lyrics that bring "American Slang" to life. The band roars behind Fallon, who overdubs harmonies that are both shouted and almost impossible to decipher during the chorus, giving the song a sense of thrilling desperation.

One of the songs on the album is called "The Spirit of Jazz," and I've heard/read Fallon describe the role of the blues in shaping the band's sound. This is surely true as far as it goes, but it may be an anxiety of influence at work here that leads the Gaslight Anthem, a New Jersey band, to displace its most obvious influences, which include Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, in spirit, "American Slang" is a grittier version of Springsteen's "Backstreets" -- which may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it isn't. "Backstreets," from Born to Run, had a kind of romantic grandeur about it that Springsteen wisely left behind before it curdled into parody; American Slang has a rougher, working-class edge that the Springsteen of Darkness on the Edge of Town never fully developed but which the Gaslight Anthem has been apparently mining for some years now, edging closer to commercial pay dirt. Or, at any rate, what passes for pay dirt in a music industry that has disintegrated into bits. Had it come along earlier, the band might have had a major label recording contract (they're signed to the small punk label SideOneDummy), or they may have disappeared into the mist of a thousand bar bands. This is the hand they've been dealt, and they're playing it for all it's worth. God bless 'em -- I'm sure happy to be along for the ride.