Every Word Handwritten….

Back when the Gaslight Anthem only had one full-length album out and a just-released four-song EP, I saw them open for the Loved Ones at the Unitarian Church in Philly, as part of a record release party for the Loved Ones’ second album. Only a dozen or so people were there for Gaslight Anthem, myself included. After the band finished its set, I met front man Brian Fallon and told him his band was going to get big. He shrugged it off, and came across as sheepish and shy. I saw the band several times over the next few years since that show, and they played bigger and bigger venues each time, and Fallon was more comfortable on stage, offering banter and smiles. At another show, I met the band again at the Trocadero in Philly because they were featured on the cover of Wonka Vision Magazine, a publication I was writing for at the time. I had the duty of handing out free copies of the magazine at the show, and the band showed it to their parents, who beamed with smiles. Far bigger things were to come for the group, which made the Wonka Vision cover pale in comparison. Since then, the band has gained a rabid fanbase, toured all over the world, and shared the stage with one of its biggest influence, Bruce Springsteen. The foursome has been featured in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and countless other publications.

Today, the Gaslight Anthem released its fourth album and major label debut Handwritten. Anyone who heard the band’s first album, Sink or Swim, when it came out back in 2007, knew the band was capable of writing an album like Handwritten. Under the punk rock grit of Sink of Swim are big choruses and catchy hooks.

Handwritten is a stellar album on so many levels. The opening track, “45,” is reminiscent of old Gaslight Anthem, It’s fast, catchy, and fun. It also hits on a major theme of the band’s music- loss and nostalgia. “Let her go/Let someone else lay at her feet,” Fallon croons. The only other track that sounds like Sink or Swim-era Gaslight is “Howl,” one of my favorite songs on the record, and also the shortest, clocking in at about 2 minutes. The song doesn’t have any guitar solos or a huge hook, and because of that, it’s a welcome change in the middle of the album.

The rest of the tracks showcase the band’s ride range of influences. “Biloxi Parish” pays homage to the blues, and it has been a staple of the band’s set list for the last year and a half or so, though the studio version has a major lyrical change. The original version includes references to Asbury Park  music shows and the band’s Jersey roots in the final verse, but Fallon removed those lyrics for the album version, perhaps because the band is well beyond the Asbury Park days at this point.

The album’s title track, “Too Much Blood,” and “Desire” feature some of Fallon’s most heartfelt, emotive singing to date, as well as impressive, searing guitar solos by Alex Rosamilia. Lyrically, Fallon still references the past and long-lost eras just as much as he did on previous albums. There are plenty of references to youth, cars, and “Betty Davis eyes.” And on the track “Howl,” he poses the question, “Radio, oh radio, do you think there’s still some magic/left in our souls?”

The album concludes with the quiet track “National Anthem.” This song is just as haunting and well-written as the band’s other softer songs- “Blue Jeans and White T-shirts” and “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” Like those other songs, “National Anthem” references fleeting youth and old loves. Fallon declares, “I will never forget you, my American love.”

Handwritten is the album the Gaslight Anthem has been building up to, ever since they released Sink or Swim. More than any album, it includes all of their influences: punk rock, Bruce Springsteen, classic rock ‘n roll, the blues, gospel, and soul. I wouldn’t be surprised if these songs land the band in arenas, which is the obvious next stage of the group’s career. The new album’s huge hooks would sound great played to 20,000 new fans.

From Basement Halls to Arenas

A few years ago, I was in a far different situation than I am now. I was a news reporter living in West Chester, where  I also attended college. The location and its close proximity to Philly allowed me to see several shows in the city.

One of my favorite venues is still the Unitarian Church, which fits only 200-300 people. One blustery winter night, I ventured there for a record release party for The Loved Ones, one of Philly’s finest punk/indie acts. The band had just released its second full-length album, Build and Burn.

Opening the show was a foursome from New Jersey called The Gaslight Anthem. A few weeks prior to the show, I had purchased their debut full-length, Sink or Swim, and I was drawn to the driving power-chord anthems about lovers named Maria, growing up in New Jersey, and the power of music. They sounded like the punk version of Springsteen. The band came out and looked like they were out of the 1950s-blue jeans, white T-shirts, and slicked back hair. They ripped through several of the songs from their first album, and played a few songs from a forthcoming EP, Senor and the Queen.  The anthemic choruses were even more infectious live. 

Post-show, I  met front man Brian Fallon and other members of the band, who seemed rather shy and timid. I told them they were going to get big and they were already starting to gain popularity, at least in the underground scene. I based this off of buzz they were generating on punk/indie rock blurbs/websites, especially Punknews.org. They had more heart, energy, and passion than most bands, and it was evident their fanbase would only grow.

I didn’t see the band live again until they played Cafe Metropolis in Wilkes Barre and by that time, they released The ’59 Sound, an album with richer production that drifted more toward straight rock ‘n roll, and even soul at times. As the band’s sound expanded, the positive reviews only increased. But surprisingly, they didn’t sign to a major label, even after their next album, American Slang, earned them a feature story in The New York Times. They stuck with the punk/indie label SideOneDummy.

Over the last few years, I saw them play a few more times in Philly, NJ, and the Allentown Fair, and each time, they played a bigger and bigger venue. I also encountered them in person again at the Troc in Philly, when they were on the cover of Wonka Vision, a Philly-based music magazine I used to write for. They beamed with smiles and actually showed their parents the cover when I handed it to them before the show. But still, they were so humble and couldn’t believe they were on a glossy magazine cover.

Recently, the band announced that it signed to Mercury Records,  a major label. Despite whatever punk rock complaints I may still hold against major labels, I have to say these guys deserve it. They worked hard and toured constantly over the last few years. I’m sure their sound will continue to evolve, and I’m happy to say I got to see them at a church basement hall shortly after their first album came out. It was clear even then that success awaited them. That small show, where only two dozen people or so knew them, is even more special to me now.

Here’s an older track: