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The Gaslight Anthem Thrill with “Sink or Swim”

Observer Scene | Monday, April 7, 2008

Bruce Springsteen has undergone quite the resurgence over the last few years. Membership in the Church of the Boss has grown exponentially, notably including the Killers and the Hold Steady. Who knows the reason, but “Born to Run” is now the hip album and/or song to name-drop. Maybe it’s because the kids who grew up listening to his music now have bands of their own. It’s not that this praise isn’t well deserved, because Springsteen’s music has certainly been some of the most powerful of the past 35 years.

This is not, however, an evaluation of Springsteen’s longevity, despite first appearances. This is a review of the excellent debut album by New Jersey’s the Gaslight Anthem entitled “Sink or Swim” released last May. These are the kids who grew up listening to “Born in the USA”, grown up with a band to call their own. One could say the Gaslight Anthem play rock-and-roll, or punk rock or something different. It doesn’t matter what words you use to pigeonhole the band; what does matter is that they play with the same heartfelt honesty the Boss did. Though vocal influences are obvious, it’s really the conviction and blue-collar lyricism that they share. This is a band that knows the deep power of a simple, well played rock and roll song.

All this is obvious from the first 30 seconds of album opener “Boomboxes and Dictionaries”. It is driving, powerful, anthemic and catchy. It’s a song that you want to play in the evening as the sun goes down, with the volume turned up and the windows down. It makes you want to sing along, to quit school and start a band. Despite all this, the song doesn’t stand head-and-shoulders above the eleven that follow it.

“I Could’a Been a Contender” starts off with just singer/guitarist Brian Fallon’s voice, a few quiet lines about being broke and hungry, before the band kicks in triumphantly. The lyrics are about facing adversity head on, the song backs them up appropriately. The miracle is that this style never feels fake or forced, it’s never hard to believe the Gaslight Anthem have lived the things they sing about.

Maybe there’s something in the New Jersey water that produces everyman lyricists. If there are two running motifs in the lyrics on “Sink or Swim”, it’s driving and dancing. In fact, well over half the dozen songs mention one or the other, if not both. Likewise, the mystical New Jersey created by the songs of Springsteen casts a spectre over the songs. The cities are burned-out traps, escape is the only option for the restless youth on these songs. To call the lyrics “hopelessly romantic” would be an understatement.

The Gaslight Anthem never go the full E Street Band route instrumentally though, limiting their repertoire to just the standard guitar, bass and drums, with the occasional acoustic guitar and harmonica. The simple, though some would say standard, approach works perfectly for the songs. This is where the group’s punk rock influences show through. No horns, no piano clutter up the album. The songs are short and sweet, around three minutes apiece.

It’s very difficult to find a fault in this album. Sure, this isn’t the most mind-blowingly original sound, but is instantly familiar, tried and true. Each song stands out in its own way, the lyrics are well written; in fact, everything that makes up a great album is present.

To put it simply “Sink or Swim” is a fantastic debut. From the acoustic numbers like “Red at Night” to the charging rockers like “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” not a single song fails to impress. The future is very bright for this still young band, with only this full length and a recently released EP to their name. The Gaslight Anthem is without a doubt one of the most exciting bands making music today, and the stellar “Sink or Swim” is proof for that.