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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 7 – The Gaslight Anthem “The ’59 Sound”

Part 7 in a series that ends very, very soon. This entry offers more Springsteen worship.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is his finest work and one of the greatest albums ever produced. Its ten tracks paint heartbreaking pictures of desperation, regret, and bare-toothed determination in the face of hopelessness. Whereas “Born to Run” spoke to a need to break out and did so with optimism, “Darkness” is the story when that optimism fails.

Despite all of this, the album is somehow not depressing, to the credit of Springsteen’s arrangements and the E Street Band’s gusto. Steeped in the Jersey Shore mix of fifties rock and early R&B, Springsteen and John Landau’s production is bombastic, and the band fills every space, with an often joyful noise that stands in direct juxtaposition to the lyrical themes. It’s an emotionally complicated record that rewards the listener’s efforts to peel back the layers.

It’s unfortunate that more pop and punk musicians aren’t influenced by The Boss. Until recently, one of the only bands openly showing their Springsteen influence was The Arcade Fire. Their excellent sophomore album, “Neon Bible,” captures much of the essence of “Born to Run,” filtering it through that Canadian orchestral indie rock sound that has been so popular over the last several years. It’s a brilliant record, but sometimes I wanted something different, something that kept the feeling of those early Springsteen classics but with a more direct sound. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I found The Gaslight Anthem’s latest album “The ’59 Sound” (click to listen at Lala.com).

Sobriquet Magazine described the Gaslight Anthem’s sound as what pop music might have sounded like if Springsteen had ignored Landau and let the Ramones record “Hungry Heart” instead of keeping it for himself. That is absolutely the best description I’ve heard of the band. Their music is a stripped down and sped up Jersey Shore sound, replacing most of the funky R&B influence with punk grit. The songs lend themselves to reflective late-night drives or a night around the campfire after the laughter and conversation have died down. The album eschews studio trickery, opting instead for more of a live sound: guitars, bass, drums, voice, and a slap-back reverb that evokes a small bar in the late hours. You can almost smell the smoke and hear the glasses clinking together and the murmur of people at the bar. The album is wonderfully suggestive.

Singer Brian Fallon doesn’t have a distinctive voice like his musical forebears, but if he lacks there, he more than makes up for it with his lyrics. Like Springsteen, Petty and the other heroes he Fallon references in his songs, he writes stories, three minute slices of life in some nostalgic fantasy America that never really existed outside of rock and roll songs. Oddly enough, he (along with the music, even) reminds me of the best moments of Doug Hopkins and the Gin Blossoms, without the bounce and shine of the early 90s production. Like Hopkins, Fallon is a talented songwriter, and in him we may see what the former could have achieved had alcoholism and depression not brought him an early end.

Springsteen is still making quality music, and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Still, forty years into his career, it must be nice to know that there are groups that he can pass the torch to. Fallon and his group have had a quick start to their career, a momentum that is hopefully sustainable in the years to come. If so, they could be the ones to pick up the slack when the Boss calls it a day.

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