Review: Brian Fallon – Painkillers

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I watched Brian Fallon play “A Wonderful Life” on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah the other night, and although Trevor’s questions after the song seemed shallow and awkward, Fallon’s performance was anything but. Painkillers, his first solo album, can seem at times slightly off-putting considering how fleshed out The Gaslight Anthem can be. But seeing Brian standing at the mic, the fire in his eyes as he sang, with three other guitarists behind him, it became immediately clear that Painkillers is a work of passion and deeper than what appears on the surface.

You can buy Painkillers on iTunes.

You can buy Painkillers on iTunes.

By “off-putting,” I don’t mean any harm, but rather that on first listen, it sounds like Brian Fallon played it safe: simple beats, xylophone melodies, Americana-esque guitar ballads that tip-toe the line between folk and indie rock. Essentially, The Gaslight Anthem stripped of the heavy guitar.

But Painkillers is an intricately woven fabric. With the essential pop songs, such as “A Wonderful Life”, the songs are created in a fashion that helps the music tell the story with a touch of country-infused pop. The central melody for “Painkillers” is a simple guitar riff that repeats throughout the song as though you’re staring up at the ceiling and watching the room spin in circles as Fallon sings, “And we wanted love like it was a drug / All we wanted was a little relief, and every heart in between / They were painkillers to me”, hiding the chorus of backing vocals and intricate slashes of the guitar.

Similarly, “Smoke” is essentially centered on the crisp beat light taps of the drum, and a swell of hand claps that diminish the guitar and punctuated piano as though lost in a foggy room. The slides of the electric guitar over the hand claps has a wonderful country-esque touch that seems to lift the fog as Fallon sings soberly, “And the black clouds came and darkened all our insides / There were newspaper clippings with horrible headlines / Of doom and despair and your name and my name said / ‘Who will save you from the truth of the matter, that your love, though like gold, is gone?’”

Not everything sounds like an experimental indie song though. “Steve McQueen” is a heartfelt acoustic ballad, with the gentle tap of the snare and egg shaker almost louder than the guitars and somber piano, as Fallon reminisces of faltered dreams. “Open All Night” is a bluesy country song that finds the conclusion of a loose story woven throughout the album of returning to the lights of large cities and the realization that the girl he’s been chasing is gone, for the better of both of them. “And I will never know the town where you finally settled down / With the top back on a Cadillac and your sunglasses on/  And you can’t make me whole, I have to find that on my own”.

“Rosemary”, one of the album’s true highlights and one of the best songs Fallon has ever written, is a rampaging rock song with sweet xylophone spread across the bridges. It is a back and forth story of a couple essentially discovering that they’re falling apart, and lead character Rosemary finding her self worth through the experience amidst garage rock shouts of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

What Brian Fallon has done with Painkillers is pull off the best aspects of what was accomplished with The Gaslight Anthem and strip it down to a minimum. The guitars are quiet, the beats simple and the lull of the shaker takes precedence over flashy guitar solos. But what it makes room for is emotional storytelling. Anyone used to Gaslight’s rock might need a little coaxing into the softer tone of the album, but the passion on this album is something that couldn’t have been done any other way: Springsteen inspiration blasting at full force.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and saw Brian Fallon live for the first time outside of The Gaslight Anthem. He sold out the House of Blues without even having a record out. The man is a talent.

Review: Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool?

 

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Up until yesterday, I hadn’t heard of Jeff Rosenstock or any of his various projects, as heretical to the punk scene as that may be. For someone who has been a part of the scene for 20 years, he’d somehow completely escaped me the entire time despite dipping my toes in literally every band I’ve come across in the same amount of time.

His second solo LP, We Cool?, was a random album I decided to listen to yesterday, and since then, I have listened to just about everything else he has put out. We Cool? is a lesson in punk rock from someone who has watched the genre evolve from the brutal grunge of the 90’s to the melodic pop noise of today. It really says something about an artist’s talent when in less than a day, they’ve made themselves as important as Lagwagon’s Joey Cape to me.

We Cool? is a trip through the last twenty years of punk and pop punk. Each song feels instantly familiar in some way, shape or form: a guitar solo in “You, In Weird Cities” and the opening to “Novelty Sweater” would make Weezer envious. Ben Folds Five piano rock oozes out of “Nausea” before breaking out in a sweet horn section out of a slower Less Than Jake song. The songs aren’t rip offs of these bands, but Rosenstock wears his influences on his sleeve proudly.

The result is an album that goes above the label of “punk rock” and instead offers the best of what the genre can deliver in any form. Rosenstock provided most of the work on the instruments (at least what I can tell from the album’s site), and each instrument shines through when needed and allows the album to stay fresh as it tours from one style to the next. Chiptune melodies appear suddenly in some songs (“Polar Bear or Africa”), but feel essential at once, especially when paired with the bass lines and guitar.

The real star here is the guitar work. The crunch of the chords feels classical and aggressive, while the solos slide with such stylish pop that most modern bands seem almost childish in comparison. The way that songs transition from soft pop with country influences (“Beers Again Alone”) to unapologetic hard punk (“Hey Allison!”) ensures that at the end of each song, you’re transfixed on what the next one will be.

Rosenstock’s vocals strike me in weird ways. He obviously pushes himself from sweet croons to straining his voice to be purposely out of tune amidst snarling melodic shouting. He sounds authentic and unwilling to artificially tune his voice.

The record sounds mature. This is a man who has outgrown the troubled love life of younger bands and is finding life as an adult even more troubling then most punk bands have ever explored. Don’t get me wrong, these are definitely drinking songs and the standard fare of drug use and subtle emo garnishes are aplenty, but it goes so much deeper. “Polar Bears or Africa” actually tackles most young punk bands head on with a single lyric of, “The truth is it sucks being young and in love / When you’re old you’re just bummed that you’ll never be happy enough”.

The first line of the album on the aptly titled “Get Old Forever”, Rosenstock regrettably sings in a monotonous tone reminiscent of The Mountain Goats, “When your friends are buying starter homes / With their accomplishments / Drinking at a house show can feel childish and embarrassing / With people glaring / Because despite what the advertisements said / Malt liquor doesn’t make you young”.

The theme of maturity gone wrong is what carries the album. The rock scene is something beyond the ‘norm’ for most punk teens turned adults, and Rosenstock’s lyrics reflect it brutally honestly. During “You, In Weird Cities”, Jeff sings, “I don’t have to wake up, I don’t have to feed a kid / And it’s got to the point where I’m not sure if that’s something I wanted”.

For me, Jeff Rosenstock is a new obsession, for others this solo album is a another high standard. Perhaps the only downside to We Cool? is that all the genre progressions can make it feel disjointed at times, and perhaps a bit too long. But the few downsides are so outweighed by such sincere and intricate songwriting it doesn’t even matter. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Jeff Rosenstock, We Cool? is the jump off needed to showcase his talent on every level. For those of you who already know about him, keep doing what you do; you’re obviously better than the rest of us.

Please check out the Quote Unquote Record label and show some support or check out Sideone Dummy for the album’s release. It’s well worth your time.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and somehow completely missed Jeff Rosenstock for last fifteen years. Boooo. Boo Kyle, booooo.

Review: Gerard Way – Hesitant Alien

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My Chemical Romance was a well-worn machine; they created magic in the recording studio and spread the credit to each member of the band. Now that they’ve separated, it’s becoming interesting and far easier to see the individual cogs that held MCR together.

I think it is safe to say that most everyone expected Gerard Way’s first solo album to be a sassy demonstration of his swagger and persona, but considering that he was really only credited with lead vocals on MCR’s albums and on stage, it’s impressive that he can write an album that is just so damn good.

Hesitant Alien sounds as though it is a natural progression out of MCR’s Danger Days; wave after wave of fuzzy guitars, heavy drums, bombardments of bass and a raging synth. There is a dynamic surf-style chord progression to the guitars that keep the songs grungy and charismatic.

This is a common thread throughout the album that makes it sound cohesive, if not slightly similar. The punk aspect that Way has been so familiar with is replaced by driving rock beats that sound more aligned with a heavy indie sound. The addition of random instruments, like a saxophone in “Get the Gang Together” just feels right with the playfulness of the music.

As someone not known for his guitar work, Way seamlessly channels the sound from verse to chorus to intricate and meaningful solos. The fuzz of the guitar doesn’t get in the way of melody or overpower the other instruments. “No Shows” has a heavy rhythm that translates to an energetic jam of an instrumental halfway through. The fuzzed power chords become incredibly soothing against the relentless drums. The bass is heavy, often equally as fuzzy and always popping at the forefront.

As with Frnkiero and the Cellabration, former MCR touring drummer Jarrod Alexander absolutely kills it. He destroys the drums with heavy beats that maintain a hypnotic steadiness that pairs perfectly with the grunge of the guitars and Way’s eccentric vocals.

Vocally, Way delivers the electric performance he is known for. He barks out sharp vocals that sound more comfortable and natural against the pop grunge guitar than the stylized punk rock of MCR. However, that may be the biggest detriment to his voice; it sounds comfortable. While his singing sounds natural and eccentric, he doesn’t seem to be pushing or challenging himself the way that his fans know he oftentimes does. However, given the work he put into writing such balanced songwriting, it’s not surprising that he wouldn’t strain his vocals as much with everything else to concentrate on.

Lyrically, fans shouldn’t expect to find the grand storytelling or deep poetic prose of MCR. These songs are whimsical and simple. They’re easy to sing along to, but don’t carry much weight past the surface level. The verses are sparse, with the brunt of the song relying on the chorus, such as the second verse of “Action Cat”, which is simply, “Every accidental damage I wouldn’t take, every heart I left behind you couldn’t break.”

There are a few charming lyrics though, but they are sparsely hidden. During “Millions”, Way sings, “You believe in love, I believe in faith. They’ll believe in anything, you make up the villains. A trillion legions of the damned and William.” Nothing deep emotionally, but it’s a line that will turn your head. Though the lyrics are pretty basic, they make some great lines to sing over the raving guitars.

Hesitant Alien is a great surprise from an artist not particularly known outside of their vocals and energetic stage performance. The quality of the writing and experimentation is beyond what I imagined Way capable of on his first go as a solo artist, which proves how little I thought I knew about the inner workings of MCR.

The energy, passion and spectacle are alive and thriving on this record. Just like he managed a little over a decade ago, Gerard Way came out swinging to prove to anyone willing to listen that he’s one of the greatest performers of this generation.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.