Garden State punk rock act rises above the badlands
At first listen it’s difficult to understand The Gaslight Anthem’s runaway success. For one the New Jersey roots-punk act unlike its brethren in The Arcade Fire Wolf Parade and The National has never been able to shake its comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. Singer Brian Fallon’s sleepy vibrato sounds like he’s fighting a Valium hangover — and losing. The band’s guitar tone at times sounds like a penny rattling around in a rusty coffee tin. And oh did we mention the Springsteen comparisons?
But as it turns out guitarist Alex Rosamilia — who despite the band’s Americana tag says he sculpts his hollow-bodied jangle around ’80s Britpop specifically Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr — isn’t fazed by his band’s cosmic connection to The Boss.
“There are very few bands that sound like nothing else on the face of the Earth” he says. “You can’t really compare anyone’s music without referencing other people’s music. Springsteen got compared to Dylan. And Dylan to Guthrie.”
“We don’t mind” he says pausing. “As long as they’re good musicians.”
But while reviewers still can’t resist the Springsteen and Clash references they also can’t stop heaping on the praise. Somewhere between ’59 Sound and American Slang released earlier this year the group transformed from punk rock message board favourites into one of the world’s most universally adored bands.
The notoriously tough Pitchfork snobs have offered up dollops of glimmering praise. The band has performed on music’s largest international stages from Lollapalooza to Leeds to Reading. Heck even its idols are smitten: Springsteen invited Fallon to join the E-Street Band onstage for his 2009 DVD Live at Hyde Park . Further at the Boss’s request he also performed a duet with The Anthem at the Glastonbury Festival (messing up the lyrics to “’59 Sound” in the process).
No The Gaslight Anthem is no longer the Jersey Shore’s best-kept secret. And that still hasn’t sunk in for Rosamilia.
“The stage might get bigger but it’s still like playing a basement in the middle of Iowa” he says. “The feeling behind the songs — and why you’re playing the guitar — is still there.”
But after repeated listens it’s apparent that The Gaslight Anthem is more than the sum of its sonic parts. Rarely is a punk rock act described as cinematic but the foursome is in fact just that: There are few bands that can create a universe with the authenticity vivacity and visual specificity of The Gaslight Anthem. And that’s no mistake: Rosamilia says thematically the band owes as much to cinema as it does to say The River .
“If there’s anything that romanticizes Americana well it’s Hollywood” he says noting his love for Revenge of the Nerds. “We grew up with an over-saturation of movies and TV and that shows up in our generation. We as a people are trying to achieve what we see in movies. The perfect love the loser coming out on top — that’s something that’s been in movies and that’s something that shows up in our music.”
But Hollwood worship aside The Gaslight Anthem is inventing Americana on its own terms. ’59 Sound was a brilliant piece of historical revisionism — a sprawling mid-tempo epic it paired James Dean cool with an unrepentant penchant for crate-digging (“No one with under 250 records should be in a band” says Rosamilia) re-creating an era that while fictional always felt soothingly familiar. Those Miles Davis references certainly didn’t hurt either.
American Slang on the other hand expanded its scope beyond cuffed jeans barbershop pompadours and sailor tattoos. With Fallon struggling with his quick-fading youth it’s an album that turns its referencing inwards which for the first time has him at the front and centre of its narrative.
But while American Slang occupies more introspective territories it’s still easy — and rewarding — to get lost in The Gaslight Anthem’s universe. And to Rosamilia that’s one of his band’s standout qualities.
“We’ve lost the idea of what music is supposed to be” he says. “The corporate major-label monster turned it into more of a business. But music is a way of having a good time — enjoying what you’re listening to. (It’s about) forgetting where you are for a little bit.”