THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM – HANDWRITTEN (2012)

By R. David

Published June, 20th 2012

For me, stumbling upon The Gaslight Anthem was a happy accident.  I suppose, had someone told me they were a group I just had to hear and sung their endless praises, I would have been underwhelmed.  After all, the wrap on them by their detractors is generally something along the lines of ‘Springsteen knock-offs meet The Clash’.  For any devout Springsteen fans such as myself, it is immediately clear these fellow Jersey boys – specifically front man and main lyricist Brian Fallon – owe a large debt to the songwriting stylings of their home state’s rock royalty. If someone were to tell me they just discovered this great new band, specifically citing their lyrics, I likely would have charged them with backing their U-Haul up to Springsteen’s door and taking everything not tied down, and I probably would have immediately tuned out. 

But as it happens, I came across The Gaslight Anthem at a time when I was starved for new music and the very thing I was looking for was a new band that could somehow bridge the generational gap between The Boss I loved and a fresh, new sound. They needn’t reinvent the wheel. After all, Springsteen is still a vital recording and touring force (and better at both than any artist half his age).  I didn’t need a band to fill a gap left by him, but to reassure me that all was not lost in modern rock and roll; that there are new musicians out there who care about the same sort of songwriting themes that I do, no matter how unfashionable they may be at the moment in current pop music.

That The Gaslight Anthem are bold enough to wear their influences on their sleeves – name dropping specific artists or referencing song titles and full sets of lyrics in their songs, and throwing in the occasional cover at their live shows or as album bonus tracks – makes them all the more endearing.

I caught up with the band about a year after their 2008 breakthrough, The 59 Sound; a big, raucous, tough, and yet surprisingly warm and inviting slice of pop-punk.  It was the sort of energized and compellingly vital sound I was looking for; bolstered by heartfelt, if at times overly sentimental, lyrics.  Songs like the title cut, “Here’s Looking At You Kid” and “Backseat” (still their absolute best track,to these ears) are still, 3 years later, in constant rotation on my stereo.  Their new album, Handwritten, despite some buzz about them branching out, doesn’t really push the band in any significantly new directions.  As on their last effort, 2010’s underrated American Slang, Gaslight continues to expand their canvas with a handful of arrangements that are more ambitious than their typical garage rock sound, but ultimately the more flourishes they add, the less impactful their songs are.  It’s a nice breath of fresh air to have a track here and there that goes in a different direction, but it would be a mistake for them to attempt an entire album of glossy studio productions.  Thankfully they seem to realize that much and Handwritten doesn’t venture too far outside of their comfort zone.  Like all of their albums, there are a few rote moments, clumsy lyrics and attempts to bite off more than they can chew; but mostly it’s The Gaslight Anthem fans know and love.

Things get off to a invigorated start with lead single “45″, in which Fallon likens the game of love to a record spinning (“The song just keeps on repeating, drop the needle again.”). With “45” Fallon sets the tone of the record which, like the Gaslight’s other albums, is romantic intensity interspersed with moments of muted lament.  On the album’s best tracks, Fallon is able to combine the two. “45”, “Here Comes My Man”, “Mulholland Drive” and “Keepsake” are all big, dramatic, beat-your-fits-against-the-wall tales of regret.  And it’s at songs like these the band excels most.  “Here Comes My Man” downshifts with some melodic “sha-la-la’s” in the chorus, making it perhaps the most obviously radio-friendly track on the album, but the emotion simply cannot be contained as the verses ramp back up to the sort of driving guitar rock the band apparently can’t suppress even when they try (nor should they); except when they strip things down completely, as on the mournful ballads “Mae” and “National Anthem”.  Even here though, while the tempos may change, the themes do not:  Its’ all romantic young boys in jeans and t-shirts against the world.  “While the city pumps its aching heart for one more drop of blood, we work our fingers down to dust and we wait for kingdom come,” Fallon sings on “Mae”.  What’s his refuge?  Why, a girl with “Bette Davis eyes”, of course.  This would all come off incredibly clichéd at least – and unbearably mawkish at worst – if the songs weren’t so sincerely and accessibly written and sung with such conviction.  “I want to see you tonight.  Can we go for a drive?  You can lean into me…  If you ain’t been in love for a while.”  If there is listener who can’t relate to lines like these I almost feel badly for them. Fallon creates a scene for the listener with the best of them.  “I still remember holding you, just out of sight of her.  In the deep, dark parking lot pressed up against my car, with your hands around my neck I felt the pounding of your heart,” he reminisces on “Mulholland Drive”.

None of this is to say that Gaslight it is immune to occasional lyrical missteps.  Just as Fallon can be counted on for accurately capturing the longing of hopeless romantic, he is often guilty of reveling in clichés and Hallmark-esque pap.  Claims that “I’d just die if you ever took your love away,” and “I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night, and it travels from heart to limb to pen,” run rampant.  Sometimes Fallon’s intense delivery can salvage an awkward line, sometimes not.  The worst offender is the title track, which has more goofy lyrics in one song than perhaps the rest of the album as a whole. But more often than not, the band emerges unscathed from these moments.  It helps that Handwritten also includes a couple unpretentious, straightforward rockers.  “Howl”and “Biloxi Parish” hit hard and fast and are less about regret and romance than defiance and escape; essentially a return to the Springsteen model, but with their punk roots, as always, firmly in check.

Handwritten is a solid album by a solid band.  It’s not as tight and doesn’t grab you the way The 59 Sound does, but it’s a nice compliment to American Slang.  The Gaslight Anthem still seems to be finding a way to breakthrough and perfect their sound and exactly what kind of band they want to be and where they fit in.  Whether or not they ever find their niche or take the world by storm, there are far worse things than being a tight unit with a refreshing old school rock sound and lyrics that immediately transport the listener back to a specific time, place and relationship.   B+

Key Tracks:  45, Here Comes My Man, Mulholland Drive, Keepsake, Howl, Biloxi Parish, Mae.

THAT’S MY BOY

By R. David

Published June 15th, 2012

I hope “That’s My Boy” is a big hit.  Not because it’s a great movie – it is not; but because it is a gutsy move for Adam Sandler, who is finally venturing away from formulaic rom-coms and schmaltzy family dramedies with this R-rated return to his roots.  It’s vulgar, ridiculous, predictable and pedestrian in both its direction, editing and many of the performances; but that it represents something of a bold change for Sandler; the fact that it offers something – anything– different from the sort of safe, middle of the road, predictable crap he has been toiling away in for over a decade now automatically places it at the head of what I like to call the Sandler Comedy Machine.  This encapsulates his entire filmographry from right about the time “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy” each did well north of $100 million at the box office as the 1990s came to a close, right up thru to last year’s double whammy of target-audience-pandering awfulness “Just Go With It”and “Jack & Jill”.  Though there were a few decent efforts sprinkled throughout this decade or so of soul-selling mediocrity – and it’s worth noting that most of these pluses were his ventures into drama – Sandler found a lucrative niche (crass potty humor mixed with warm and fuzzy love stories and family drama – I’m all for good natured family comedies, by the way, but the problem is all of Sandler’s are friggin’ horrible) and shamelessly exploited it for all it was worth. 

Though he’s never exactly been considered a master comedian, there was a time when Sandler’s brand of vulgar, juvenile, frat boy humor –combining arrested development naiveté with drunken male bonding and cartoonish violence – was a breath of fresh air from his snarky counterparts.  Where many comedians in the mid-90s sought to be a smarter, more subversive and grounded alternative to the Andrew Dice Clay, Pauly Shore and Sam Kineson party boys who kicked off the decade, Sandler reveled in the beers, buds and babes comedies of the 80s comedies he grew up on.  He was a “Revenge of the Nerds” and“Caddyshack” guy in “Seinfeld” and Bill Mahr world.  The pleasures of his early films and comedy albums, no matter how guilty, were considerable.  Then the world caught on and Sandler made the compromise to tone down his act in order to bring a wider (and younger) audience into the fold.  “That’s My Boy”marks Sandler’s first return to the outsized comedy roots of his early films that would eventually make him a movie star. If it can somehow make as much money as the usual dreck he pumps out seemingly by assembly line these days, maybe he will consider bringing some bite – or at least versatility and surprise – back to his films and the world will be spared another “Click”, “Grown-Ups” or (especially) “Jack & Jill”.

“That’s My Boy” is probably just as lousy a movie in its genre – raunchy, R-rated, Judd Apatow knock-offs – as something like “Just Go With It” is in the rom-com genre, but the fact that Sandler is back to doing a raunchy, R-rated comedy at all makes the film both interesting, refreshing and worth supporting.  I’m sure it will be a tough sell at the box office, not only because it represents something of a departure for Sandler, with a rating that will automatically leave out a large swath of his fan base, but because trying to explain the film to a perspective viewer (especially to mildly recommend it) would have them believing you are some sort of sociopath.  The year is 1984 and, in a premise equally culled from Van Hallen’s “Hot for Teacher” and ripped from unfortunate recent real-life headlines, Massachusetts 14 year-old Donny Berger becomes a media phenomenon after knocking up his 8th grade teacher (or his statutory rapist if you want to be technical about it; this movie does not).  The teacher went to prison and Donny was left to raise their child, terribly.  Berger’s fame was fleeting and he grew into a slobish, unemployed man-child.  Of course, the present-day Donny is played by Sandler as something akin to what Billy Madison might have become had his father disowned him instead of letting him repeat school and inherit the family hotel chain.  With the IRS coming after him for nearly two decades of tax evasion, Donny is promised all the money he owes if he can get his estranged son (Andy Samberg) to reunite with him on a reality TV show.  Donny’s son, born Han Solo (natch) but now going by Todd, is a successful but insecure, neurotic and deeply emotionally scarred ( physically too, if you count his full-back New Kids On the Block tattoo his dad forced him to get in a drunken stupor) Wall Street executive who is about to tie the knot when Donny shows up to, I’d say wreak all kinds of havoc, but as is common in Sandler films, Sandler’s characters are often very appealing (for some reason) to many of the very people he should annoy.  Like many of Sandler’s past doofuses, Donny easily wins over and charms nearly everyone he comes in contact with making whichever resentful character or two the film picks as the hold-out his only source of conflict.  In “That’s My Boy” this role is fulfilled by his son, and it’s little wonder why. More perplexing – and ridiculous – as in nearly all of Sandler’s films where he plays some variation on this character, is that any of the other characters would put up with his antics, much less find them as endearing as they do.  It makes the viewer wonder why Donny is broke when he can apparently win over an entire party of stuffy, rich corporate types or persuade random women in hot tubs to drop their tops for him simply by telling crude jokes in an obnoxious accent or repeatedly shouting “WHAZZZZUP?!”(a gag that was played out over a decade ago). Perhaps this is such a common theme in Sandler’s films because he often felt like the big-hearted but obnoxious goofball that people just didn’t get or accept growing up.  But that sort of psychoanalysis is more than a film like this deserves, and regardless you’d think he’d have gotten it out of his system by now.

But criticizing “That’s My Boy” for making little sense in terms of real-life scenarios, trafficking in genre conventions in its storytelling, and tacking on a leaden, schmaltzy third act resolution is as pointless as criticizing any Adam Sandler comedy for these things.  It’s all simply to be expected.  Where audiences need to look for things to enjoy is in the margins, where Sandler often plays colorfully.  Who else, after all, would cast Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges in their film, not simply as one-joke cameos, but as actual reoccurring characters with full backstories and motivations?  Sandler’s penchant for taking truly absurd plot detours has also done a great deal to keep his films watchable despite the film proper being a sinking ship.  You can almost always count on the fact that if plot momentum is starting to flag, there will be some absurd scenario, twist, cameo or throwaway gag come flying out of left field.  It’s easy to sum up Sandler’s films as predictable but, despite the fact that they always follow a formula to the letter, and rely on formulaic contrivances to march their characters to a predictably mushy resolution, few other film-makers provide audiences with so many unpredictably bizarre tangents. “That’s My Boy” delivers all these things in spades, and the R-rating only gives Sandler that much more freedom to photo-bomb the audience with these little indulgences, without having to adhere to things like structure and good taste (a relative term here) in the same way he might in a more mainstream, family-pandering exercise.  Again, none of this necessarily makes “That’s My Boy” a good movie, but it keeps it fresh by Sandler standards.

Sometimes this excess gets away from Sandler, like in the film’s big twist, which is certainly surprising, but that doesn’t exactly make it any less questionable where decency is concerned.  Of course, no one expects Sandler to be concerned with decency, but there are several jokes here that are simply gross for grossness’ sake.  But they don’t fail because they are off-putting, they fail because they are lazy and not really all that funny if you remove their shock value from the equation (a running gag of Donny masturbating to a photo of his son’s fiancé’s grandma, and then finally sealing the deal with the real thing, runs out of gas quickly, but Sandler keeps coming back to it).  Still, on balance, there is more to recommend in “That’s My Boy” – and I stress FOR ITS INTENDED AUDIENCE (others certainly need not apply) – than might be expected.  The comedy fails just as often as he succeeds here, but the fact that some of this succeeds at all is pretty surprising.  And I hope the film is a big success if for no other reason than because when audiences didn’t respond to Sandler’s (truly excellent) attempts to branch out as an actor in underrated gems like “Reign Over Me” and “Funny People”, he immediately retreated to doing the most ridiculous and labored comedies of his career (quite a feat, but what was “Jack & Jill” if not Sandler finally making a real-life film on par with the exaggerated awfulness of the ones of his disillusioned character in “Funny People”?). If this movie – a relative departure of a different, admittedly more vulgar sort – tanks, I shudder to think what he’ll respond with next.

2 and a half stars out of 4.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL (2012)

By R. David

Published March 6, 2012

What is Bruce Springsteen if not a national treasure?  Sure he’s one of the best writers and performers in rock history – that much is undisputed (and if you do dispute it, your argument is weak and invalid) – but beyond his staggering talent and essential internalization of everything that is rock and roll, Springsteen is also a man of the people, not afraid to rage against the machine.  Of course, a rock star taking a political stance or standing up for what he believes in is certainly nothing new, but Springsteen doesn’t simply spout populist, well-intentioned platitudes and call it “social commentary”.  He writes very carefully and deliberately, not speaking in generalizations, but to specific real world situations and anger, adopting the voice of the downtroden as if he were walking in their shoes (because, of course, no matter what his detractors will say about a multi-millionaire being a hyopcrite to write about such things, he has walked in their shoes).  He has done this since his earliest records, of course; but where he used to apply his lyrical depth to tales of young Jerseyites wasting away on the beaches, boardwalks and turnpikes of their dead-end town, he now writes on a global (or at least national) scale.  His characters are older, perhaps wiser, and some may have even made it out of Jersey – or whatever one-horse town and preordained existence they worked so hard to free themselves from – only to once again find themselves facing insurmountable odds thanks to the dirty politics and economic bitch-slap that has taken so much from so many over the last decade. 

Writing songs about such things is not necessarily a feat in itself.  Any writer worth their salt who chooses to discuss social issues in their work should be able to address the concerns of the day in some fashion.  But Springsteen doesn’t stop there.  He never has.  He becomes these characters.  He wears their skin.  He crawls into their psyche.  He explores the fear and hate that consumes these individuals, as well as the love and faith that keeps them pushing forward despite it all.  Anyone can write an angry rock song, especially when they are passionate about a given topic.  That’s perfectly fine and admirable by itself.  But how many also go so far as to explore where these people find their redemption?  Anyone can write a weepy ballad of loss or healing.  But where most artists stop there, this is where Springsteen starts.  It’s how much further – how much deeper – he chooses and is able to go that is a such thing of pure beauty.

Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s latest state of the union address, is a romper-stomping, fire breathing, and venom-spewing beast of an album. It starts big and broad, asking our nation if indeed “We Take Care of Our Own”, but it quickly moves inward, shrinking in scope and exploring how the lives of a group of various characters have been affected by our failure to adhere to that adage, before growing again – moving beyond issues of national struggles and into the spiritual and religious, the only place that healing and redemption is left for many of these people.  And not just the victims of the economic downturn, but the fat cats at the top as well.  “We’ll be called for our service come judgment day,” Springsteen sings on “Rocky Ground,” an ethereal, bible verse-riddled gauntlet thrown down near the album’s end.  “Before we cross that river wide, blood on our hands will come back on us twice.”

The desperate blue-collar Joe in “Easy Money” (a close cousin to the Nebraska classic“Atlantic City”) tells his girl, “put on your coat, I’ll put on my hat… we’re going on the town tonight.”  But he’s also packing a “Smith and Wesson .38” and has a “hellfire burning” in his stomach. Soon he confesses that his world has come crashing down and no one seems to care.  So he, his woman, and his gun “are going on the town tonight looking for easy money”.  The hero of “Shackled and Drawn” simply wants to work and asks, “Is that so wrong,” noting his “shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone”.  And the protagonist in “Jack of All Trades” will take any menial job he can find to support his family, but ultimately no matter how many roofs he mends or lawns he mows, these jobs are not enough to make ends meet.  What’s interesting in all of these songs is that these are presumably characters of considerable drive and skill.  We’re not talking about people necessarily born into poverty or someone who is homeless because of , say, drug addiction or legal troubles.  They likely had good jobs and were happy at some point.  They just want to work.  But that has been taken away from them and out of anger and desperation they are all now embarking down a destructive path.  The guy in “Easy Money” is turning to robbery, the “Jack Of All Trades” goes from reassuring,“we stood the drought, we’ll stand the flood,” to wishing he could find the“bastards” responsible for his situation and “shoot ‘em on sight,” and the hero of “Shackled and Drawn” knows that without a job to do he’ll be susceptible to similar temptations.  It’s not just the money; all these men know, perhaps all that keeps them in check, has been taken away from them.

But some of these characters do find refuge in other places.  “Baby I’ve been down, but never this down,” Springsteen laments on the gorgeous “This Depression”.  It’s a simple line, but in the context of this album it essentially serves as Wrecking Ball‘s thesis statement.  These people have faced hardships before, but never like this.  “This is my confession,” he says to a lover, “I need your heart in this depression.”    And if the character in the title track doesn’t have a loved one to turn to to help pull him through, he‘ll take his spit-in-their-eye sprit and pull himself up like he’s done time and time again.  “Take your best shot… bring on your wrecking ball.”  After all, “hard times come and hard times go, just to come again.”  Not everyone makes it out though.  Wrecking Ball’s closing three-pack – and perhaps its strongest sequence of songs – all either hint at or flat out take place in some form of after life, where the peace that many of these people were denied in life might finally be theirs in death.  “Please let them know, we are alive,” Springsteen reassures the listener on the closing track.  “Though our bodies lay alone here in the dark, our souls and spirits rise.”  At this point in his body of work, “rising” is as fundemental a Springsteen theme as hotrods and boardwalks ever were.

Given the album’s heavy themes, you’d be forgiven for thinking Wrecking Ball were some sort of funeral dirge.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This album has some of the more interesting and varied production of any Springsteen album, incorporating all kinds of interesting modern flourishes from drum loops to dubstep, even a small rap verse on “Rocky Ground” (which actually comes off fine and feels perfectly organic to the song). It’s the big, cinematic sound of the E-Street Band meets the folk flavor of the Seeger Sessions Band, and it feels like the album Bruce has been building to for the last half-decade or so as he has intermittently mixed quieter solo albums and stylistic departures with his more traditional rock efforts. Ironically, for one of his most forward sounding albums, Springsteen has chosen to rely largely on folk stylings from across several generations and continents, which plays up the metaphor that we as a country are again suffering through the hard times of the past that spawned our most enduring folk songs.  It’s a genius move on Springsteen’s part (after all, as he sings on “Jack Of All Trades”, “It’s all happened before, it’ll happen again.”).  “Easy Money” recalls the barn-burner, Americana hootenanny fans will remember from the Segger Sessions project a few years ago, “Shackled and Drawn” has the lyrics of a field-hand gospel song and a tribal beat, “Death To My Hometown” (a contender for the album’s best track) is a Celtic romper-stomper that would feel at home on a Dropkick Murphys disc, Tom Morello lends searing guitar codas to “Jack Of All Trades” and “This Depression”, “You’ve Got It” is a sprightly piece of countrified pop, “Rocky Ground” is a gospel choir-infused hymn, “We Are Alive” samples Johnny Cash’s“Ring of Fire”, and the reworking of the Rising–era tour standard “Land of Hope and Dreams” is given some R&B flavor, more horns and a walloping sax solo from the late, great Clarence Clemons, and functions as the album’s farewell tribute to The Big Man, both with his solo and the song’s achingly appropriate lyrics.

Wrecking Ball, with its nontraditional, genre-blending musical styles and its heavy themes, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But for anyone complaining that music doesn’t mean enough these days, artists don’t say enough and no one is trying anything new or different, Wrecking Ball is a delicious tonic – the cure for banal and predictable rock music (as is typically the case with a new Springsteen album).

“Get yourself a song to sing and sing it till you’re done.  Sing it hard and sing it well, send the robber barons straight to hell, the greedy thieves who came around and ate the flesh of everything they found, whose crimes have gone unpunished now…  They brought death to my hometown.”  Ladies and gentlemen:  Bruce Springsteen.  Still the boss.  A

Key Tracks: Everything.  (But highlights include Death to My Hometown, This Depression, Rocky Ground, Land of Hope and Dreams.)