Brian Fallon, now 32, must have sparkled (and certainly not faded) after he, as a 13-year-old American kid in Hackettstown, New Jersey, discovered one of the most influential records of the Redcoat punk scene: The Clash's self-titled debut which chartered dub, reggae, rockabilly, funk, and ska with a British aesthetic that forever changed a revolutionary underground that welded, nailed, and taped together bits and pieces of rock and roll for the disaffected youth of the world. And while Fallon's New Jersey compadres, The Gaslight Anthem, aren't a combo pack of varying styles and tastes that were perfected by the duo of Joe Strummer (reference Fallon's tribute to Strummer on Sink or Swim's "I'da Called You Woody, Joe") and Mick Jones, Fallon's attraction to the right music clearly honed his edges as the adept songwriter he is today. Handwritten, Gaslight's fourth full-length recording and first for Mercury Records, isn't perfect, but it is a full-on testament and continuation of punk and folk ethos Gaslight has embodied since their creation in 2005.
Following a side project The Horrible Crowes—a two-piece of Fallon and TGA guitar tech Ian Perkins who released a delicate, introspective record, Elsie, early last year—Fallon puts Gaslight back on the road with 15 brand new rockers to mix in the set list.
Where The '59 Sound and American Slang are consistent with their thinking-man's post punk anthems and Fallon's romantic gusto and included whispers of post-bebop jazz ("Miles Davis and the Cool") and a waft of a sultry lounge scene ("The Diamond Church Street Choir"), Handwritten is a more straight up classic martini: gin please; no lemon spirals; little vermouth; garnished simply with skewered olives. Musically, one could draw comparisons to the fertile classic radio era of Billy Squier's Don't Say No with a bigger, glossier sound than previous records. There's a Soungarden-esque number "Too Much Blood" and notebook of jottings taken from the Tom Petty school of guitar. Thankfully, Handwritten is more Replacements cool than Foo Fighters cool (oxymoron there?).
The most obvious comparison made of TGA's sound comes from the shallow reviews of rock journalists who are quick to pull out The Boss and his E. Street Band. It's easy to do: Fallon hails from Jersey; both are lively, charismatic, front men; and Fallon's raspy throated singing closely resembles the unshaven Bruce. Handwritten was even produced by Brendan O'Brien (a two-record producer for Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, Paul Westerberg…). But while O'Brien may have put more sheen on the wax and made the young men clean the dirty fingernails before dinner, The Gaslight Anthem is a serious band with their own sound, their own charisma, and their own vision. And Handwritten holds its own.
Through 11 songs, TGA (also available in an expanded 15-song edition) clangs and rumbles like a locomotive strutting railcars at a street crossing. Perhaps it’s the consistent dank-dank of the boxcars that attracts the sleeping hobo to near-sided refuge. But whatever the reason, power and comfort are paired in rollicking numbers in the title track, "45," and "Desire." These songs are big, and each serves as catalysts for an arena rock band. Large pop-up anthems ascend, crash and explode with anthemic, cathartic emotion. Without the mid tempo center starting with the fifth track "Keepsake" and through to the seventh track "Howl," Handwritten would take bit of heavy rotation before the songs could establish their individual identity to even discernable listener.
It's an every man (and woman) record. Take, for instance, the third track, "Here Comes My Man" (not to be confused with the Pixies' radio hit of the 1980s, "Here Comes Your Man"). Fallon immerses into the persona of a scorned girlfriend (or spouse) putting up with the everyday bullshit of the archetypal alpha male. The ironic title is, in essence, a rallying cry urging the all-too-familiar beaten down woman to stand for herself, demand only goodness, or leave if need be. Fallon places himself in that eureka moment of the fed up "Let the good night decide who she wants me to find/And I'd never let you drop another tear in my eye," sings Fallon in the opening stanza, his throaty howl and gruff vocals remindful of a hard-drinking, fast-talking traveling revivalist clutched around the neck by the Holy Ghost. Indirectly, the song urges men to crave the affection of their woman not by materialism and blank emotions, but instead, by gaining honor and favor by being true men—soft when need be, understanding always, flexible at the request, and transforming from selfishness to selflessness. In that, it's a song of sacrifice, maturity, and, if all would work out, true love. Fallon always hopes for the best, even when TV news reality ID Channel horrors seem more the norm of the day than the exception.
Perhaps it's Fallon's unobtrusive spirituality, understated in his lyrics and inked on his sleeve that reveals his convictions and grace. On the second-gear tempo of the sonically textured song "Mae," Fallon offers a reality check on society's forgetful, busy workaholic ways: "While this city pumps its aching heart/For one more drop of blood/We work our fingers down to dust /While we wait for Kingdom Come/With the radio on." Fallon questions the state of mankind through his own situations. "With everything discovered just waiting to be known/What's left for God to teach from His throne? /And who will forgive us when He's gone?" asks Fallon in the recording's haunting closer, "National Anthem." A lyrical messages' irony woven into each song might place mankind on the curbside, homeless and without cigarettes, their really is hope to cling to, even if some baggage and blood needs to be shed. And that's Fallon's style: he doesn't preach nor does he expose the iniquities of others like some judgmental oaf.
And while Gaslight's success is bittersweet to fans that caught on in 2006 with the addictively accessible debut, Sink or Swim (or even those fans of his early band, This Charming Man), Handwritten may find the band exulted as Latter-Day Saints of rock and roll. In an industry fat on the self-indulgence of hip hop, track acts and the digital download dominance of bands fronting mindless teen drama TV series (think Monkees gone wild), The Gaslight Anthem is helping hold the torch. But Fallon would never claim such pompousness. Just listen to Handwritten.
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