Review Summary: Brian Fallon and longtime friend/Gaslight guitar tech Ian Perkins collaborate on a record that flawlessly juxtaposes despair and sadness with resilience and hope.
If you're familiar with The Gaslight Anthem, I reckon I don't need to speak at length about Brian Fallon's masterful storytelling abilities, where his gravelly, rugged voice operates with the heartfelt conviction and gusto of a fiery preacher delivering his homily. If you've never heard Gaslight, then here's a quick crash course: the New Jersey-bred Fallon has gone on record saying that he has ambitions of Gaslight attaining the same prestige as fellow statesman Bruce Springsteen - The Boss has even played with the quartet on stage - and while Gaslight will always be his top priority, he sought an outlet where he could fuel his burning desire to write songs in the vein of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, or The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli. How Fallon has the capacity to take anyone and everyone's sadness, pain, and forlorn spirit and juxtapose these emotions with feelings of healing, of recovery, and hope for the future - and just make it seem so goddamn easy - escapes reasoning and, quite frankly, makes me jealous as hell. Paired up with longtime friend and Gaslight guitar tech Ian Perkins, the Horribe Crowes' debut Elsie
a Brian Fallon solo record; rather, it is a brooding, soul-searching album (described as "hymns for the lonely" by Fallon himself) that effortlessly coalesces elegy and renaissance in one of this year's best records.
's character-driven stories aren't far removed from previous Gaslight material, and there are certainly parallels in instrumentation - especially the use of raucous guitars - across the two bands, but an argument can be made that the audience anticipated this. What listeners probably didn't expect is the litany of strings, organ, and other orchestral arrangements (courtesy of the Parkington Sisters) that are only spotted here-and-there across the Gaslight discography. Find a song anywhere from Sink or Swim
through American Slang
like "Go Tell Everybody", where warm bass and organ precede Fallon ripping into a soulful, frenetic yelp: "I've been known to wear a fine black suit and a murder of a tie; I've got miles on my shoes that your brothers can't buy . . . / So go tell everybody that you drove your poor lover crazy / And take a good look at just what the night did." In what's probably a lazy parallel on my part, Fallon's bombastic, visceral delivery brings to mind a gospel choir, further substantiated by the song's crescendo in its last ninety seconds, where crashing percussion, a soaring string section, and a steady organ swirl amount to one of Elsie
's finest moments as Fallon shrieks, "I was a man of great sympathy when I loved you, my baby, but tonight, all my sympathy, oh, she's gone!"
While there are plenty of boisterous moments throughout Elsie
("Behold the Hurricane" is another obvious highlight with its explosive Springsteenian chorus and "Ladykiller" is an alluringly-arranged masterpiece with a number of familiar lyrical highlights ["Let it pour over my head, all your shame and your history / And see if I say a thing as it rolls up inside of me"] that every person has, for good or for ill, gone through at some point in his/her life when an unknown rival snatches one's loved one away from him/her), the record is thoroughly contemplative, and Fallon's sadness and vitriol are clearly palpable. The opening 1-2 punch of "Last Rites" - led by funereal piano and soft tambourine - and the somber "Sugar" (where a rumbling bass line carries the fragile vocal line in the song's chorus) capably sets Elsie
's ardent, impassioned tone. Fallon flawlessly balances an I-told-you-so demeanor with a feeling of helplessness throughout "Sugar" ("Only I know, I know you get lonely at night / I know, I know you get lonely sometimes / . . . Nobody knows you like I do / Who do you think that you're kidding this time"").
It's with these slower, more somber affairs where Perkins absolutely shines - as Fallon put pen to paper, Perkins feverishly went to work on Elsie
's theatrical piece, creating an atmospheric ambiance scaffolded by his fantastic instrumentation and beautiful arrangements. For example, the slide guitar, reverberating bass, and spirited organ makes "I Witnessed a Crime" even more potent, and the cacophonous "Mary Ann" is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping pursuit with its bluesy guitars and clamorous percussion (courtesy of Fallon's bandmates in The Gaslight Anthem) and resonant organ having an innovative, yet strangely familiar, swagger. The same can be said about "Black Betty and the Moon", which is arguably the record's highlight slower number, with its soft vocals (where Fallon serves as his own vocal accompaniment, with a whispered track underneath his sung vocal, namely in its bridge) and pleasant piano; meanwhile, the sauntering, waltz-like "Cherry Blossoms" is somewhat spooky in its bittersweet build, and while I'm sure I'll catch hell for this, Brian Fallon sounds as if he's channeling the late Jeff Buckley here. The duo's efforts on "Crush" is, almost without question, the quintessential Horrible Crowes track, and is one I repeatedly come back to and find something amazing about it.
As haunting as Elsie
is with its omnipresent playback value, some moments don't sonically translate well. For instance, the intent behind "I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together" is a wonderful story (the stanza "Do you wanna come over" I was just about to miss you / Did you say you were lonely" I was just about to call you" is an emphatic kick to the gut every single time) with perfectly-eery supporting instrumentation (in particular, the high keys on the piano), but meanders for far too long, weakening its impact. It may be the victim of poor tracklist placement - the preceding "Blood Loss" begins lethargically, and its almost-to-excess symbolism and romantic ideals taint the song's recovery at its midpoint, where everything feels right again.
These are small complaints, though, as the emotion and intensity behind Elsie
is almost constantly at fever-pitch regardless of tempo or topic. Perkins' resplendent arrangements are immaculate throughout the record, and Fallon's lyricism rarely, if ever, needs to be defended. His raspy, rugged vocals complement his character-driven tales so well, and coupled with Perkins' knack for constructing gorgeous compositions, Elsie
's wide array of emotions, and the various techniques the duo utilizes in executing each individual track is certainly noteworthy. There is incredible sadness, anguish, and despair throughout the record, but these emotions are always countered by resilience, confidence, and hope. Elsie
is nostalgic, contemplative, and persistent; it's also one of 2011's best. Imagine a time capsule filled with old photographs, torn love notes, and mementos of past mistakes. This is its soundtrack.
Go Tell Everybody
Black Betty and the Moon