August 24, 2012

gaslight anthem handwritten mercury records
Reviewer rating: 4.5/5
Imagine driving to the Jersey Shore with your buddies for the weekend. You’re going to need the right playlist for the ride; it needs to be New Jersey. Many people living in the Northeast know exactly what I’m talking about, but if you pick the right playlist, someone from San Diego, who might never have been to New Jersey, can somehow feel that feeling too.

Whether you listen to punk, or classic rock, the unanimous choice is Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run - the quintessential New Jersey album. There are many others to choose from:  Bigwig, Thursday, the Misfits, Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the soundtrack for “Eddie & The Cruisers" (John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, although they’re not from New Jersey, but the movie takes place in New Jersey).

Up until a few years ago, those were basically the choices. But in 2006, a band poised for greatness would release an album, Sink or Swim, which just bled the Jersey Shore sound (not the TV show). That band would be The Gaslight Anthem.  Since 2006, they have released four LPs and one EP – the latest being release in July called Handwritten.

From the opening guitar licks on 45, to beautiful string arrangements on National Anthem, Handwritten is different from their previous albums. They’ve maintained their distinct sound, and also expanded their musical palette, creating and building upon their previous successes, and adding new styles, sounds, and feelings. If you’re not familiar with the Gaslight Anthem, I think the best way to describe this band is this: take a handful of the sultriest poetry, and heartiest melodies you can find, blend it with Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, add a touch of Bouncing Souls, and a pinch of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.  The band creates well-constructed songs - not too difficult, and not too simple – due to some subtle musical features to their songs, that you may pick up on subconsciously, and that I will point out in this article.

gaslight anthem handwritten guitars vocals musical example score

On the title track Handwritten, the harmonic structure changes ever so slightly after the repeat, going from playing a B♭ in the first section, to an F in the second section. This slight change sounds very appealing, as it’s a lot smoother with the descent from the G-minor chord to E♭ major chord. The guitar licks in measure 4 and measure 8 (colored in red) are prominently featured due to the rest of the instruments dropping out, except for the vocals, which are working in contrary motion to the guitar lick. This happens throughout the song, minus the vocals, during the verses. This, I believe, is the glue that holds this song together.

gaslight anthem press photo
Left to right: Alex Levine, Brian Fallon, Ben Horowitz, Alex Rosamilla
In the songs 45, Mulholland Drive, and Biloxi ParishBrian Fallon is expanding his vocal range to cover more notes from F to B♭, without adjusting their tonality at all, as they love writing in the keys of A, B♭, and F (not that that’s the only keys they utilize). This allows Brian Fallon to project his voice better, and more powerful. Compare the powerful sound in his voice with these two songs: Boomboxes and Dictionariesand 45 (above).

I find it interesting that this album is written organically, as suggested by the title. In this short video on the making of Handwritten, Brian Fallon states that there were no computers allowed in the writing process. Everything had to be organic. Handwritten. Old-fashioned. I wonder how many bands do this nowadays.

Finally, I’d like to point out creative use of the strings in the last song, National Anthem.  Even though the song is constructed similarly to their other acoustic songs, this song is proof that they are growing as musicians. Again, with the simple chord structure, and form, they are able to use a string section sparingly to create an ambiance unmatched in their other acoustic songs. The finger picking style in the guitars contrast with the swelling of the strings – again, a beautiful use of simplicity that might be overlooked by many.

If you can’t hear the Jersey Shore sound in this record, or any of their records for that matter, then you’re doing it wrong. I challenge you all to take a long drive on the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, Route 9 (Highway 9, as stated in Born To Run), Route 1, and any other road or highway in New Jersey, with a playlist containing The Gaslight Anthem, Bruce Springsteen, Bouncing Souls, Bigwig, Southside Johnny, Frankie Valli, and any other proponents of the Jersey Shore sound. I want you all to describe the feeling you get while listening to this playlist in the comment field. This is what music is supposed to do to your mind, body, and soul.


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