Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jesse Malin - New York Before the War

Jesse Malin is one of those guys who has never gotten enough credit. Though he's been an integral part of the New York music scene since 1984—when he began fronting the hardcore band Heart Attack, at the ripe age of 12—Malin's solo records, starting with 2003's The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, have always been overlooked gems. He's got so many famous friends that it seems like he should have been able to network himself to superstardom by now. After all, Ryan Adams produced his first record; Bruce Springsteen made a rare guest appearance on his song "Broken Radio," from 2007's Glitter in the Gutter; and when U2's "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" was criticized last year as an inauthentic tribute, Malin was there to set the record straight, recalling a time when he and his late pal Joey had hung out with U2 at a "Saturday Night Live" after party and felt nothing but love and respect from Bono and company.

Malin is also incredibly skilled at bringing the sound and feel of the classic rock days into contemporary music—though that shouldn't be surprising, considering that he's been around for long enough to convincingly refer to a lot of his favored influences as contemporaries. From The Clash to The Replacements, The Velvet Underground to Tom Waits, the echoes of days gone by never stop radiating through Malin's music—whether you are listening to the work of his old glam punk band D Generation, or to one of his excellent solo albums.

For awhile though, it seemed like Malin might not make another one of those excellent solo albums. His last LP, 2010's Love it to Life, arrived to the usual mix of fan appreciation, critical respect, and mainstream ignorance. When D Generation got back together to tour in 2011, Malin's solo career fell by the wayside. His Facebook page indicated that he was writing and recording, but consistently without an announcement as to when that material would be heard as a new album. I personally began to wonder if Malin was growing disenchanted with the game, tired of watching guys like Brian Fallon and Craig Finn attain massive success by doing very similar things to what he was doing with so little fanfare.

Malin's long-awaited fifth album, titled New York Before the War, proves that, if anything, the veteran rocker just need a few years to get things just right this time around. Supposedly, Malin cut more than 60 songs for this album, settling on 13 of them for the finished product. You can hear how hard he worked to hone the perfect tracklist: New York Before the War is Malin's most cohesive, consistent, and varied LP ever. It might also be his best, a taut collection of catchy rock songs, stirring ballads, and recognizable rock and roll influences that immediately seems like the record Malin was born to make.

We start in a stark place, with the piano-led opener, "The Dreamers." Usually a guy who opens his records up with big anthemic rockers, Malin opts this time for nearly apocalyptic gloom. "Wake me up when the world is dead," he intones at the beginning of the track, his distinctive voice sitting calmly amidst a simplistic arpeggiated piano backing. The song gains intensity as it goes, with a female vocalist doubling Jesse's melody on the chorus, and with a fractious, far-off guitar blotting out the sun. Sparse percussion joins the texture for the final minute, but even then, the song never bursts into the kind of rocker that Malin is known for. It's a curveball of a commencement, and it forces the listener to pay attention.

First single "Addicted" is more in the vein of Malin's past track ones. A jangly number with an infectious melody and a foot-tapping, hand-clapping rhythm, "Addicted" sounds from its title like a look at the infamous "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" lifestyle that Malin has probably witnessed more than his fair share of over the years. In actuality, it's a nostalgic manifesto from an old rock 'n' roller who is feeling left behind by the changing times in an industry full of young guns. "Now they're closing up the bookstore, and they're putting up a condo/We're gonna watch this whole thing blow," Malin sings in the first verse, followed by the line "And I've lived here all my life."

From one angle, the song is definitely about Malin's neighborhood in New York, fading and losing its charm as the years go by. There also might be a metaphor here, though, about the city's changing music scene. Since he started playing in bands when he was 12, the 46-year-old Malin has obviously watched a lot of great bands come and go. Suffice to say that it has to be a surreal feeling to be as young as he is and still feel like so much of a veteran. So when "Addicted" reaches its chorus refrain—"And the band played all the sadness of my youth"—it seems like Malin is aching for a time and an ideal that has long since been lost in the dust.

Luckily, Malin can still romanticize the good old days of rock 'n' roll in his songs, and he does plenty of that over the course of New York Before the War. "Turn up the Mains" blazes like Exile-era Stones; "Oh Sheena" references a character from a Ramones song; "She's So Dangerous" sounds like the kind of desolate late-night ballad that would do well in the hands of Paul Westerberg; the Americana-laced "The Year That I Was Born" has a pleasant Dylanesque atmosphere—even if it's more Jakob than Bob; "Boots of Immigration" plays the NYC guitar rock card like it's a b-side from Marquee Moon; "Bent Up" has a drunken honky-tonk feel that echoes Ryan Adams' Jacksonville City Nights; "She Don't Love Me Now" settles into a vintage E Street groove, recalling "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," horns and all; "Death Star" is the kind of glammy number Butch Walker was referencing when he made The Rise and Fall...; and the ringing "Bar Life"—the album's emotive grand finale and arguable highlight—tells a tale of an immigrant drowning his American Dream in alcohol, with all the smoky barroom intimacy of Tom Waits' Heart of Saturday Night.

As you can probably gather, Malin covers a lot of ground on New York Before the War, a fact that might make the album an exhausting listen for some music fans. Look at these songs individually, though, and there's little doubt that they are among the best material this veteran songwriter has written in his career. Upbeat tracks like "Freeway" are effortlessly hooky without losing their requisite punk rock grit, while piano-led ballads like "I Would Do it for You" show off an artist who could pull off a sparse singer/songwriter disc just as well easily he could write a rock record. Malin has always been a talent, but here, he parlays everything he does well into a single 45-minute burst, and he reaches his pinnacle as a result. Hopefully this time around, we won't have to wait five years to hear a follow-up.

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