Friday, January 16, 2009

The Gaslight Anthem. Sink or Swim (XOXO, 2007)

"We are the last of the jukebox Romeos."

One of my favorite musical trends of the last few years has been the re-emergence of stripped-down, gimmick-free (unless you consider the lack of gimmicks itself a gimmick), bass'n'drums'n'guitar-driven bar band rock'n'roll. Bands like the Hold Steady and Marah have looked back to Thin Lizzy, Springsteen, and the Replacements as musical touchstones, picking up on the honesty and bruised bravado of those groups, combining strong narrative tendencies with powerful, hook-laden singalong instrumental bluster. It's nearly impossible not to get drawn into the ardor and intensity of this stuff when it's done right, making your heart swell 'til it's ready to burst from your chest, your throat hoarse from shouting along with the chorus, fists all but pumped out.

The Gaslight Anthem are four Jersey boys who fall squarely into this backward-leaning, forward-looking camp, a band obsessed with early Boss (they're from Jersey, so...) but raised on post-punk and hardcore. The resulting sound is effing fantastic: roaring bombast tempered by bruised sentiment, cocksure hookiness filtered through sadness and nostalgia and longing. There's no false posturing here; these guys are the real deal, on the level, totally above board. And in the short time I've been aware of them, they've become one of my favorite new bands.

The Gaslight Anthem first crossed my transom at a friend's house. I heard The '59 Sound (from the 2008 album of the same name) on his stereo and was immediately intrigued. And for good reason: "The '59 Sound" is a stellar jam, a heartrending meditation on death and redemption and friendship and youth, built around a surging melody and gloriously feverish playing. I dare you not to get a little choked up when Brian Fallon stridently muses, "Did you hear the old gospel choir/ When they came to carry you over?/ Did you hear your favorite song/ One last time?" It's incredible, defiant and resigned all at once, perfectly phrased and artfully conveyed.

After I heard that song, I decided I had to investigate further. So I picked up The Gaslight Anthem's 2007 debut Sink or Swim, and was immediately glad I did. Like The '59 Sound, Sink or Swim is jam-packed with finely honed hooks and mammoth riffs delivered by scruffy kids with their hearts pinned to the sleeves of their ragged jean jackets. The LP finds the band obsessed with place and time, investing memories and favorite songs with intense meaning and importance, and elevating the entire endeavor to a place well above adolescent navel gazing.

The majority of these tunes are barnburners, classic rock as interpreted by post-hardcore diehards. The dynamics are powerful, and Fallon's voice -- a gravelly bark capable of nuanced tones and expressions -- is perfectly suited to the task. Lead off cut Boomboxes and Dictionaries uses a staggering riff and hurry-up drums to nail home lyrics about driving around and listening to the radio. "Because the radio will still play loud/ Songs that we heard when our guards first came down," Fallon assures.

The Brando-esque narrator of I Coulda Been a Contender warns, "There's a storm front coming/ There's an S.O.S. on the seas tonight," before commanding, "Steady now, steady now/ Soldier, hold fast now," as the band plays on full overdrive; when things take a turn for the Fugazi -- fractured rhythms and snarled guitars -- at the 2:11 mark, The Gaslight Anthem shows off their smarts for our benefit.

We Came to Dance is almost unbearably great, a tale of barroom seduction and deluded romance, of characters who find comfort in familiar songs loudly played and little else. "We learned from the very best dancers in town," rages the small town Lothario. "Come take my hand/ Mama, we came to dance," he implores, making it sound like a promise and a threat.

"Drive" does just that, ringing single note siren calls piercing the curtain of furious chords, while We're Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Diner thrashes vengefully, snares and chords duking it out over a shoutout shanty before the victorious closing chant of, "It's all right, man/ I'm only bleeding, man/ Stay hungry, stay free/ And do the best you can." It's a moment of pure rock transcendence, showing the pure naked power of distorted chords and amplified cymbal crashes.

Sink or Swim isn't all redlining, though. The acoustic hymns "The Navesink Banks" and "Red at Night," both of which conjure up memories of Nebraska and Darkness at the Edge of Town, are quietly gutting, excellent showcases for The Gaslight Anthem's more subtle touches.

It's been a while since I've heard a band that's connected with me so quickly and directly as The Gaslight Anthem. They are undeniably awesome, possessed of real skill and an innate sense of what makes rock'n'roll great. I could listen to these guys for a long time without ever getting bored, and I intend to.