The Horrible Crowes - Elsie
Release Date: September 6, 2011
Record Label: SideOneDummy Records
In 1974, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jon Landau wrote a concert review for a Boston publication called The Real Paper. Landau was one of the most respected music critics in the country, and his review of an up-and-coming musician’s recent performance would ignite a historical friendship and prophetically illuminate the career of one of the most important figures in rock and roll’s history. Landau’s now-famous quote read, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
That celebrated (and often misquoted) sentence has been passed down from fathers to sons, from Springsteen diehards to first-time listeners. That quote holds a lot of weight, and more than 35 years later, it’s time to dust it off. While I reserve the right as a music critic to launch onslaughts of hyperbole every once in a while, it’s safe to say no exaggerations have been penned for the sake of hyping this review. Elsie is just that good.
Brian Fallon is best known for being the charismatic frontman of New Jersey punk rock and rollers The Gaslight Anthem. While Gaslight’s brand of modern rock and roll might not get the comprehensive recognition it fully deserves, Fallon is approaching heightened status as a pioneer of the genre, and his newest project is a testament to that. Working with longtime friend and Gaslight Anthem guitar tech Ian Perkins, The Horrible Crowes is Fallon’s latest foray into leaving his legacy.
The Horrible Crowes’ debut LP for SideOneDummy Records is decidedly unlike The Gaslight Anthem’s last two full-lengths, which launched the band to new popularity. While Fallon’s instantly identifiable vocals remain the primary blueprint of Elsie, there is a distinct sound to the record – a more brooding, contemplative and soulful vibe that perhaps takes notes from Tom Waits or Springsteen’s Nebraska or Darkness On the Edge of Town – that makes The Horrible Crowes a fully removed side project from Gaslight. As a result, fans will not be getting a laundry list of b-sides that didn’t quite make it to American Slang – and this is something to celebrate.
Elsie, as Fallon and Perkins have put it, is a “night-time music” project. This is evident enough on the slow, short and purposeful opener “Last Rites,” where Fallon soothes into crisp production, “My baby just ain’t no good / My baby just, she ain’t no good.” The mood is sufficiently set with the following “Sugar,” a slow-tempo song that rises in intensity without ever breaking character, a strong face for the record. It’s followed up by the most Gaslight-esque track on the record, first single “Behold the Hurricane.”
Fallon makes use of his considerable vocal talent more on Elsie than on perhaps any Gaslight Anthem record, and soulful numbers like the intense, crescendo-ing “Go Tell Everybody” and the fiery “Mary Ann” reveal at times an almost tangible passion. Other songs play across a bit more subtly, like the winding “Cherry Blossoms” or the accessible “Ladykiller” – a piece of songwriting worth remembering. “Blood Loss” has the feel of a closer, but “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together” instead ends the record similar to how “We Did It When We Were Young” ends American Slang. It doesn’t go out with a bang, but it leaves listeners thinking and with the weight of a message – even if the message isn’t the same for everyone.
The uncontested album highlight is “Black Betty & the Moon,” a track with a subtle, perfectly laden hook and wondrous guitar work from Perkins. The chorus is a standout on its own, but Fallon caresses listeners in the bridge when he sings, “They want you to doubt every trust that you’ve known / And they wanna find the holes in the armor exposed / And they come on whispering, ‘If you just do this for me…’ / And turn and show their teeth just before they’re sinking in.” There are layered vocal tracks at moments, with Fallon complementing himself, and he actually whispers the whispered line in the story, giving an equally fragile yet astounding quality to the song. It’s the strongest moment in the entire course of the record, helping make “Black Betty” the best song on the release.
Elsie will not go down as Fallon’s opus. Whether it’s better than the last two Gaslight Anthem records is a different conversation entirely, but Fallon will undoubtedly only improve as a songwriter with time. One thing that is certain is The Horrible Crowes have raised the bar with Elsie. The standard for 2011 has been set. This is the best record released so far this year, and there very likely will not be one that can top it.
And although I already basically held this opinion, what Elsie proves is that it’s time to place faith in Brian Fallon. He’s proven himself multiple times over now as a premier songwriter, a passionate vocalist and a poetic lyricist. Beyond all that, though, is the sentiment that Fallon is a reason to be excited about rock and roll music. The humble New Brunswick native is playing the same music he grew up listening to, but he’s leaving very much his own unique branding on it. The comparisons to rock and roll apostles before him may never end, but the future is just as bright as the past is legendary.
Brian Fallon is the future – and very much the present – of rock and roll.