American Slang

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Article Reviews

The Gaslight Anthem (Side One Dummy, 2010)

If your idea of rock and roll requires three-chord guitars, bass and drums, and a dead-earnest sense of commitment, the last couple of decades have provided pretty slim pickings. But take heart: The Gaslight Anthem, from New Brunswick, New Jersey, has come to the rescue.

This guitar-man version of rock and roll boasts an unbroken lineage back to Elvis Presley, to Hank Williams and Robert Johnson before him, and to thousands of anonymous black and hillbilly players before them. It has been declared dead many times, but it has always sputtered back to life. The synth-pop invasion of the early 1980s did some damage but provoked the counter-reformation of grunge. In the post-Cobain decades, much of the spirit and urgency of old-time rock and roll has transferred to the best of hip-hop.

But The Gaslight Anthem is committed to the old stuff. Literally. The instrumentation on their albums never strays from guitar, bass, and drums without even a piano fill or synthesizer wash. The band calls their music “blue-collar soul,” and the name suits them. Their guitar sound and brisk tempos may derive from punk rock (The Clash are a major influence), but their songs practically bristle with references to rhythm and blues.

For instance, on American Slang the song “Bring It On” lifts its “wait a minute” refrain from “Hey, Mr. Postman,” a hit for Motown’s Marvelettes (later covered by the Beatles). The same chorus also features an “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh” vocal riff that Bruce Springsteen learned from the Ronettes. And the cultural asides aren’t all musical; for instance, the chorus of American Slang’s title track paraphrases the words of another Jersey boy, Walt Whitman.

The Gaslight Anthem’s singer-songwriter Brian Fallon has swallowed whole the entire rock tradition, and with it a sweeping, biracial, populist vision of America at its best. God bless him.

This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 9, page 42).