Listeners have certain expectations of bands that hail from New Jersey.
For starters, they need to be “working class.” They need to represent the faction of American society that keeps themselves on the factory line while everyone else Tweets about it on their Blackberries. They need to embody the big rock n’ roll spirit, which often means leather jackets, tattoos, and guitars.
Oh, and they need vocals with grit. Always. It lets us know they’re serious.
It’s safe to blame Bruce Springsteen for all of this. Throughout his career, Springsteen has repped New Jersey, and by default the United States, at an almost jingoist level with his brand of rock music. Love him or hate him, he’s perfected the attitude and image that’s associated with the Jersey sound, a sound that’s meant for the heart and the gut.
Yet while countless bands have attempted to replicate that aesthetic, The Gaslight Anthem is the only one who seems ready to take that torch away from Springsteen and carry it themselves. This is evident from the very first notes of American Slang, an album predicated on exploring how the memories of our struggles shape our future, as well as the very idea of the American Dream itself.
Commendably, The Gaslight Anthem achieves such lofty ambitions with a lean album. American Slang flourishes with 10 tracks of lean, blues inspired, pop-punk set- against Brian Fallon’s gruff stories. It begins with the pounding drums of the album’s title track, a song that explodes with full bass and shimmering bends as Fallon declares, “Look what you started/I seem to be coming out of my skin/Look what you've forgotten here/The bandages just don't keep me in…”
All in all, the songs on American Slang hit listeners quickly, arriving fully formed with passionate urgency and tuneful sophistication. The band keeps rolling as Benny Horowitz’s snappy backbeat and Alex Levine’s fuzzy bass chug along like an old muscle car on “Stay Lucky.” Elsewhere, the late album cut “Boxer” benefits from a cold vocal opening before band breaks out into driving rhythms, smooth lead work, and relentless drumming.
Yet if there’s one marked difference in American Slang’s sound, it’s that the overall production quality seems a bit drier than the group’s previous effort. The instrumentation on The ‘59 Sound was soaked in layers of reverb that added to the disc’s dreamy feel, but on American Slang, they are decidedly bare bones. The music’s meat and potatoes is the energy that stems from the riffs, not the atmosphere that comes from the distortion. This results in an album focused on melody lines rather than spaciousness, but one that also plays to the group’s strength: Their ability to balance the contemplative with the catchy.
Because part of fronting a Jersey band is having a thoughtful lyricist, and Brian Fallon fills that role eloquently.
Against spidery lead guitar and thick rhythms, “Old Haunts” finds Fallon’s sandpapery vocals exploring the passage of time with lines such as, “Cherry bomb, your love is surgery/Removing what you don't regard/And every breath felt like a funeral, baby/While you were packing up your car…” He then turns his thoughts to shared struggle on the jazzy cut “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” finding solace in shared sorrow as he sings “Just, baby who sings the rhythm and the blues/So sad, so slow, so smooth/Like I do, like I do…” Granted, he’s not name checking Charles Dickens or Marilyn Monroe this go around, but his words channel a world weary tone that’s as thought provoking as it is romantic.
While the disc could stand to have a greater sense of dynamics, it’s clear that The Gaslight Anthem have found their voice three albums into their career. That’s a refreshing sign for any group, but an especially important one for a group from Jersey. It adds credibility to the craft, especially considering the scrutiny they’d receive otherwise.
Yet Fallon takes it a step further on American Slang. Because he uses his words to define the American Dream not only for the iGeneration, but also for those that struggled before him. He attempts to bridge those divided by age and eras, perhaps in the hopes if finding something universal about belonging to this nation.
The whole picture comes into focus on the haunting “We Did It When We Were Young,” a track that straddles the line between muted minimalism and crashing distortion. Amidst twinkling guitars, Fallon sings, “We were strangers/Many hours/And I missed you for so long/When we were lions/Lovers in combat/Faded like your name on those jeans that I burned…” as he recognizes lives lived and connected through small moments of intimacy, all in the face of adversity. It’s a beautiful sentiment. Fallon re-imagines the idea of the American Dream not as a measure of success, but as a reflection of how our passions have guided us through our lives.
All in all, that’s not bad for some guys from Jersey.
Key Cuts: American Slang, The Diamond Church Street Choir, Old Haunts
Sounds Like: Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen), The ’59 Sound (The Gaslight Anthem), A Flight & A Crash (Hot Water Music)
Click on the artwork to sample American Slang for yourself!