The affinity I hold for the Gaslight Anthem has become difficult to explain. The success in which American Slang has propelled them to is as deserving as I’ve ever seen– an honest to goodness reception fitting for a band so entrenched in the working class ethos they have extolled since 2007’s Sink Or Swim. They spoke like Springsteen, sang songs the way Kerouac wrote, and held strong the values of American rock n’ roll. They were in every respect, the great American band for the current generation. American Slang is an album endlessly rich, the albatross on which they will undoubtedly fly to immeasurable heights with.
Yet, in a strange sense, the success and global reception almost works against the fables they preach. How does one relate to living the hard life when you’re at Glastonbury amongst a hundred thousand strong? Does singing about just getting by lose some of its romanticism when you’re on the cover of a glossy magazine? I never really understood why so many people were in uproar when Dylan first plugged in– maybe I still don’t, but I guess a small part of me compels the question of how an unruffled soul connects to something almost solely written for someone below the line. Is there a greater understanding of certain artists and genres when all of which it celebrates is very much part of who you are?
An educated and well-versed music enthusiast can certainly understand and appreciate various styles, genres, and histories and still remain distant, but will they ever connect to the music the same way as someone who lives a life parallel to the artist does? I’m not sure, but I know that when I listen to Born to Run, I have a far greater connection to it than when I listen to The Rising. So when The Gaslight Anthem start playing stadiums (a very good possibility than I’m actually not against at all), will the music mean the same as when I saw them play in front of 100 people in a small, broken down backpacker hotel on a sweaty August night? People who saw Springsteen in 1972 and then saw him again post-1984 may have that answer.
In the June 2010 issue of Big Cheese Magazine, they describe American Slang as “the pain of a broken heart, salvation from the radio and love by the lights of the bar. The record is a perfect marriage of expert storytelling, superb musicianship and classic melodies.” It is an apt assessment and among the many reasons why it is such a good album. Brian Fallon has traded in his crunchy riffs of The ’59 Sound for more bluesy guitar licks, dropping references to Maria while expanding his already excellent grasp of creating perfect blue collar rock songs. You will be hard pressed to find a writer who is able to inject his music with actual, down to earth substance better than Fallon. It’s genuine, all of it. And my favorite part about it all is that no matter where I’ve traveled and what I’ve seen, there is some intangible connection to the music that will resonate differently for each and every listener. It’s a murky theory I know, and I don’t have the vocabulary to explain it, but with every listen of the closing “We Did It When We Were Young”, I am reminded of life up to this point and I am hit with endless contemplation and reflection. It’s not about whether or not they wrote this song with any such intention, it’s just that it is powerful enough to do so.
Strangely, I feel less compelled to talk about the actual songs themselves; there are many rock critics and writers who will do a far greater job at explaining or justifying the praise with connections to Dylan, Strummer, Miles Davis, and of course, Springsteen. They’ll tell you about the great literary references, the homage to the great cities and trails, and the many emotional highs and lows as painted by the chord progressions and melodies. But for me, it is the lasting impression and continued connection they’ve painted since I first heard them in 2007; that life’s greatest reward comes from an unforgettable journey regardless of the final chapter. It reminds me of the many great pages left to write, and that filling them through your time here is the only reason why we should wake up every day. It does not resonate emotionally (save the closing track) as much as The ’59 Sound does, but it continues to do the greatest thing a band/an album/a song can do for me. The past is part of who you are, the present reminds us of this, and the future will always be unwritten. It is the only part of their music I hope they keep intact no matter where they go and what they do.
Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth
Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype
The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.
Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.
There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.
You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.
It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.
Sum 41 – Order In Decline
Long gone are the days of All Killer, No Filler
Canadian pop-punkers Sum 41 have been remarkably consistent over the course of their last few albums. And while we have never stopped calling Sum 41 a pop-punk band, their last few albums have been less about being fun and bouncy, opting instead for a far more serious flavor of rock music. Long gone are the days of All Killer, No Filler, replaced instead with songs that do their best to mimic Muse’s big stadium anthem feel while not forgetting their penchant for metal licks and hefty solos. Truth is, it’s quite a shame because when Sum 41 were more about being fun and silly, their songs had this incredible likeability to them. Forget All Killer, No Filler, they were at their most fun with their often silly 2000 debut Half Hour of Power.
So what to expect with Order In Decline, their 7th full length? Well, if you like easy-to-digest pop-punk anthems, you best look elsewhere as much of the album spends way too much time taking itself too seriously. Not that the results are bad; songs like “A Death in The Family” and “Out For Blood” do the faux-hardcore/melodic punk thing really well. The chugga chugga riffs, toe-tapping melodies, and Deryck Whibley’s snotty vocals continue the band’s well-refined sound. Opener “Turning Away” doesn’t shy from being a little metal, a little rock, a little punk, and sets the high energy tone for the album. The return of Dave Brownsound for 2016’s 13 Voices has solidified the album’s two-pronged guitar attack, and Order In Decline’s production helps on that front- it’s a loud album, it just doesn’t seem to say a whole lot at times. “45 (A Matter of Time)” is the band’s anti-Trump song, and while it tries to provoke, sounds loud, its cheesy protests of “You’re something to few / But nothing to me / Someone so twisted and sick as can be / It wasn’t the plan / We gave it a shot / You’ve proven a real man is something you’re not” won’t exactly inspire a raging fire within the listener. I suppose if you’re turning to Sum 41 to change the course of the future, we’re all in trouble.
Sum 41 love their ballads too- and Order In Decline’s lighter in the air moment (phones in the air for you kids) is the piano-strewn ballad “Never There”. It’s OK, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of effective balladry they showed with “With Me”. The album’s best moment is the blitzing “The People Vs…” which trades the stadium rock for more melodic hardcore/thrash that a little akin to some of the goofy stuff they did on Half Hour. The meaty riffs, a great solo and the soaring chorus pumps much needed old Sum into Order In Decline, and it’s only a shame there isn’t more of it on the record.
As the album closes with the radio-ready “Catching Fire”, listeners are left with one of these two thoughts. For those who enjoy Sum 41 when they’re trying to be the best big band they can be, there is plenty to like on Order in Decline. They’ve found a consistent, polished, and well-produced sound they first hinted on with 2002’s Does This Look Infected?. For those who found their juvenile, snotty attitude on Half Hour of Power and All Killer to be the quality they most enjoyed will respond to Order in Decline with indifference. At least I don’t hate it.