DEEP DIVE: Blue Jeans & White T-shirts – An Introduction to Brian Fallon

IN FOCUS// Brian Fallon And The Crowes - 23/11/2016 The Olympia Theatre, Dublin 1
© Clair McAllister

Deep Dive: Take a Deep Dive into some of XS Noize contributors’ favourite artists. We’ll guide you through back catalogues, side projects and career highlights so you can choose which music to put at the top of your listening list. Perfect for discovering your new favourite act, or finding out more when you’ve only just scratched the surface. Check out this week’s Deep Dive: Blue Jeans & White T-shirts – An Introduction to Brian Fallon

Essential: The 59 Sound, Elsie, Sink or Swim

Deep Dive: The Señor & The Queen EP, Cincinnati Rail Tie, Molly & The Zombies

Whether as the heir apparent to Bruce Springsteen, leader of Americana tinged punk rock heroes The Gaslight Anthem, a solo artist or album producer, tracking the career of Brian Fallon is a captivating listen. 

Critics of Fallon would suggest he is one dimensional, reliant on recycling lyrics, progressions and ideas forged and perfected by the greats like Tom Petty, Tom Waits or Springsteen. But, from the alt-country of Molly & The Zombies to the nostalgic romanticism of The Gaslight Anthem and back to the sombre Horrible Crowes, Fallon shows he’s far from one dimensional. A sincere and gripping writer, it’s in his lyrics that we see the genius. “From heart, to limb, to pen. Every word handwritten,” he sings. Brian Fallon’s music has never been considered at the cutting edge, and he wouldn’t claim that it is, but the tried and tested backbone of punk rock Americana provides the perfect platform for his lyrics to take centre stage.

There’s a lot of Brian Fallon’s music to get through for a Deep Dive, so we’ve grouped it loosely into sections – The Gaslight Anthem, Side Projects, Solo and Producer – and take a peek into the crystal ball to consider what might be next for him.

The Gaslight Anthem

When the Gaslight Anthem’s second album, The 59 Sound, was released in 2008, Fallon was heralded as the next leader of Americana, taking on the mantle from the very artists he peppered his own lyrics with references to. Joining Bruce Springsteen on stage, and then being joined by Springsteen for performances of the album’s title track only served to reinforce his pedigree.  But with that came pressure and great expectations. The Gaslight Anthem was catapulted from being a relatively unknown group to playing festivals and going on world tours. Along with it went Fallon’s songwriting, suddenly under the microscope of fans and critics.

While The 59 Sound (T59S) is regarded The Gaslight Anthem’s breakthrough album, it is just as much the tipping point of a band hitting its limit and being unsure where to go next. It’s a struggle Fallon himself described in an interview with Vulture in 2011: “The ’59 Sound is one of those things I’m always chasing to make something as good as [again]. I’m also chasing to leave it alone because it’s perfect the way it is.”

Earlier releases include an EP The Señor and the Queen (2008) and the album Sink or Swim (2007), which were considerably heavier, more punk than rock and capture the four-piece at their most raw and energetic. Alongside those harder hitting tracks though, Fallon’s delicacy came through on cuts like Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts and The Blues, Mary (written around this time but never officially released), showing a greater depth in his writing. Check out the acoustically driven Navesink Banks, and the whiplash-inducing 1930 and Drive for a glimpse of early Fallon at his best.

The energy of those albums is tamed and refined on T59S, ( listen to: The 59 Sound, Backseats, Old White Lincoln) domesticated on American Slang in 2010 ( listen to: Diamond Church Street Choir, American Slang, Boxer), but all but retired on Handwritten (2012) and Get Hurt (2014), despite Fallon et al’s best efforts to inject life into those records. At times overproduced, weaker vocally and lyrically and featuring songs which simply didn’t translate well live, Handwritten and Get Hurt must be considered along with the context of Fallon’s changing personal circumstances and the gradually disintegrating band.

There are moments on both later albums, with 45, National Anthem and Underneath the Ground worth some attention. Overall though, The Gaslight Anthem’s final two albums lack the punch of their first three and it’s here where we’d suggest a deviation from a chronological listen to Gaslight Anthem and a turn towards Fallon’s own back catalogue.

Side Projects

For fans of Sink or Swim and Gaslight’s heavier output, it’s worth digging online for a three-track EP released under the name Cincinnati Rail Tie in 2004 and a collection of songs he recorded himself aged just 17 entitled The Coffeehouse Sessions. These are an easier listen for those already familiar with Fallon’s music, and a keen ear will pick up melodies and hooks which were later reused for Gaslight Anthem tracks. His voice and pitching are often stretched, as heard on later work, but in that early Coffeehouse, Sessions cuts Fallon’s developing prowess as a songwriter is clear, despite the quality of the recording.

Fast forward to 2011 and following the release of American Slang, Fallon began writing with one-time Gaslight Anthem guitar tech, and now his right-hand man, Ian Perkins. Released under the band name The Horrible Crowes, Elsie is an album of brooding and blustering songs more reminiscent of Tom Waits than Bruce Springsteen and is arguably Fallon’s best work. It’s darker than anything Fallon wrote with the Gaslight Anthem, inspired by PJ Harvey and The National, who he was listening to at the time. Again referencing the pressure of being in The Gaslight Anthem, Fallon explains in this interview with Gigwise how The Horrible Crowes was a much freer project: “There was no pressure to do it and it was something I could do outside of The Gaslight Anthem. For me, there’s tons of pressure on with The Gaslight Anthem. Everybody’s watching. It’s like… Bruce Springsteen is going to buy the record.”

Opener Last Rites sets out the stall, leading with a simple piano melody and Fallon’s low register growl, before breaking into the slow-building Sugar. Behold The Hurricane, Ladykiller, Crush and Cherry Blossoms are among the album’s highlights, exploring much darker themes than those typically found on Gaslight Anthem records. Lyrically and musically Fallon is back on his game, and with Perkins’ input comes a delicacy Gaslight records simply didn’t have and didn’t need.  For many, T59S won’t be toppled as Brian Fallon’s best work, but Elsie is without a doubt his most original. Following the romantic nostalgia of the first three Gaslight Anthem albums, it would have been hard to predict an album like Elsie being his next release. The Horrible Crowes never officially made it out on tour (a performance at The Troubadour in LA did make it to DVD and vinyl release), but tracks off Elsie featured heavily in the set during shows promoting Fallon’s debut solo album release and stood up impressively alongside tracks off Painkillers.

Before listening to Fallon’s debut solo record, Painkillers, it’s well worth searching out five songs recorded with Molly & The Zombies in 2014. Featuring Catherine Popper (Ryan Adams & the Cardinals) on bass, Brian McGhee (Plow United) on guitar and Randy Schrager (Scissor Sisters) on drums, the five tracks merge the alt-country of the Cardinals with themes familiar to Fallon’s songwriting. Unsurprisingly for Fallon, cars feature heavily in the imagery (Red Lights, Long Drives), and the tracks centre around the memories of past relationships. It’s much lighter in tone and the acoustic fronted band sound plants this firmly in the alt-country bracket, rather than the folk or punk rock Fallon is known for.

Solo

Fallon adapts Molly & The Zombies tracks Smoke, Red Lights and Long Drives on 2016’s Painkillers with varying success. Smoke and Long Drives stay true to the originals, but are updated to fit alongside Painkillers’ other tracks. Red Lights is the most notable change, with different verse lyrics and a more stripped back feel. The Painkillers version might not be as strong as the original, but epitomises Fallon’s attempt on his first solo album to strike some new ground without straying too far from his comfort zone. 

Painkillers is as close to a follow up to T59S as Fallon has come and its twelve tracks will have been roundly welcomed by fans disillusioned by the final throes of The Gaslight Anthem. Rosemary is the stand out track, with a chugging acoustic guitar driving the pace and an instantly singable chorus. Mojo Hand is the album’s marmite track, but was executed surprisingly well in the live shows, while Steve McQueen is reminiscent of Gaslight favourites Here’s Looking At You Kid and National Anthem. Painkillers is a strong first solo record, but for those already following Fallon’s work, it was likely a little familiar. The reuse of Molly & The Zombies tracks could betray a running out of ideas, and in the other songs the themes are reminiscent of Gaslight Anthem topics – nostalgia, escape and heartache. While Elsie was a distinctly different sound for Fallon, Painkillers could easily have been a Gaslight Anthem record, and this is perhaps why those loyal to The 59 Sound will sing the album’s praises. 

Brian Fallon’s most recent release, Sleepwalkers (2018), sits out from all of his other work simply because it strikes a more optimistic tone. With a divorce behind him, not having to hold The Gaslight Anthem together, and the new experience of fatherhood to draw on, as well as returning to work with T59S producer Ted Hutt, the album feels fresher and more positive from the off. Replacing some American influences for British (most notably the Clash and name-checking the Rolling Stones) and developing the sound further from Painkillers is an attempt to give Fallon something of a new voice, but he is so associated with Americana that it’s hard not to feel he’s a tourist checking off points of interest on a map. The sound is familiar musically for the most part, but the record’s tone is something we haven’t heard from Fallon. Come Wander With Me, Etta James and the brass-infused title track are distinctly a step away from his previous output, but the acoustic simplicity and familiarity of Proof of Life make it the album’s standout track.

It’s proved a divisive album, leaving some Gaslight Anthem fans (this one included) a little underwhelmed, but at the same time attracting a new brand of listener with its daytime radio-friendly hooks and almost jangling production. As Fallon and his writing mature, it’s inevitable that his audience will too and the frontman once played on the likes of BBC Radio 1 is now filling the airwaves of Radio 2. 

Other

Fallon’s dalliance into production though leaves us with no doubt as to where his passions lie. His music may have matured, his writing developed and his tone evolved over the decade since The 59 Sound, but his influence on Matthew Ryan’s 2017 album Hustle Up Starlings is undoubtable and much closer in tone to Gaslight Anthem or Horrible Crowe’s output. The album is one of Matthew Ryan’s best to date and Fallon’s fingerprints are all over it, but only serve to complement Ryan’s own voice rather than overpower it. Adding parts on guitar and backing vocals push Ryan’s acoustic focus towards a harder rock sound not dissimilar to earlier Gaslight Anthem output. Matthew Ryan’s back catalogue, but this album particularly, should be considered essential listening for any Gaslight Anthem fan.

What’s Next?

Early 2019 Brian Fallon embarks on a very different style of tour. An Evening With Brian Fallon: Songs From The Hymnal puts Fallon centre stage with an acoustic guitar and piano. For a man more accustomed to touring with a band this might be daunting, but Fallon seems to excel in more intimate venues and a quick scan online will throw up countless excellent acoustic performances. Although more exposed, the nudity of the music allows it to take on a new dynamic. Piano renditions of The 59 Sound during the Sleepwalkers tour were haunting and brought most venues to pin drop silence until the breakdown singalong. 

Another Gaslight Anthem album is highly unlikely and the sense is that the band is happy to leave things as they are following the ten year anniversary tour. Alex Rosamilia’s new project Dead Swords is a work in progress, while Benny is releasing new music with Jared Hart, and Alex Levine continues to build his clothing and barbering brand Tiger Cuts. The most likely next step would be a third Brian Fallon solo album, which again is likely to heavily feature Ian Perkins as lead guitarist and further develop the sound established over his first two solo efforts.

Perkins’ continued presence means we can still hold out hope for a second Horrible Crowes album, too. Right?

 

 

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