Album Review: The Horrible Crowes – “Elsie”

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Brian Fallon has got the blues. His persona as frontman for his main project The Gaslight Anthem has always been that of the hard-hearted street philosopher, but with his new Horrible Crowes project, Fallon unveils a sense of soul well beyond his years. Though he’s barely thirty years old, Fallon’s writings tell of a man who has been knocked down, beaten up, scorned and cast aside, but contain a certain emotional depth that is increasingly rare in the punk community especially. All of this leaves the impression that Fallon is a man who has lived what he preaches, not just read about it in a book.

Fallon’s work with The Gaslight Anthem has often garnered comparisons to fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. While comparing anyone to The Boss is certainly lofty, it usually isn’t warranted, generally employed as a tactic used by music writers because, well, they can’t think of another singer-songwriter, especially one from Jersey.

While The Horrible Crowes may be a side project for Brian Fallon to appease the softer, booze-soaked dark side of his brain, it is by no means a solo album. Fallon and his partner (longtime Gaslight Anthem guitar tech) Ian Perkins went heavy on the instrumentation on “Elsie” – organ, horns, accordion, timpani, trumpet, clean bluesy guitar, and percussion combine with Fallon’s best wildcat growl for an album that is more reminiscent of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground’s New York than the New Jersey sound of Springsteen and the Bouncing Souls.

Album opener “Last Rites” is very much an introduction, a smoky slow-burn featuring Fallon’s vocals supported only by piano and understated percussion. It leads perfectly into “Sugar,” which is another smoky, slow-burn of a song that does pick up the momentum a little with the addition of some bluesy guitar and drums. Fans of Mark Lanegan’s solo work will find the opening tracks comfortably familiar. “Behold The Hurricane” is another incremental raise in the album’s tempo, finding Fallon’s sullen re-visitation of a lost love. “I Witnessed A Crime” is driven by the trademark sounds of the Hammond B-3, and has an interesting, understated-yet-uptempo rhythm to it that sounds like a Police cover of an old gospel tune.

“Go Tell Everybody” is an interesting track. Fallon does his best Tom Waits, switching from gravelly growl to falsetto to cathartic emotion in one fell swoop. The track’s outro, “I was a man of great sympathy when I loved you baby/ But tonight all my sympathy is gone” finds Fallon pouring his heart out more than usual (which is saying something), building in intensity with each recitation until the final, fire-and-brimstone filled refrain.

“Cherry Blossoms,” “Lady Killer,” and “Crush” form a sort of low-to-mid-tempo trilogy that make up the bulk of the middle of the album, letting Fallon’s vocals display the bulk of the emotion over music that is a little bit Gospel, a little bit blues, a little bit jazz, and a little bit rock and roll.  “Mary Ann” kick starts things again, sounding almost like “Go Tell Everybody – Part II.” Fallon howls while the fuzzed out guitar wails over syncopated drums; the sort of dirty blues perfected by bands like the Black Keys and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. With the church organ blaring in the background, “Mary Ann” is very much a spiritual song, in the sense that it sounds like a barnstorming session trying to raise the dead

“Black Betty and the Moon” sounds like a sweet ballad of a Springsteen song, but scratching the surface of the lyrics reveals something much darker afoot: “You did the very thing baby that I asked you not to do/ Now you got yourself caught in the silk spider’s web/ I hope the money fills the holes ‘cause the roof is caving in…” “Blood Loss” finds Fallon’s gravelly wail taking the reins again with a folk bloodbath of an outro that would have made an excellent album closer here it drawn out a little longer, the logical emotional crescendo that “Elsie” had been building to. Alas, it’s not the closer, as “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together” plays us out, much the way the album started; dark, understated, Fallon’s voice supported by piano and sparse percussion. Fallon’s lyrics reveal an emotional connection that is as intense as the instrumentation is sparse: “Did you say you were afraid of dying? I ain’t lived a single day without you..Did you wanna come over? I was just about to miss you…”

With its equal parts blues and gospel influences, “Elsie” may intimidate the casual Gaslight Anthem fan (I can hear the choruses of “this ain’t punk” already). By all accounts, TGA is still Fallon’s #1 project. The Horrible Crowes, however, makes a strong case for the #1A spot.

4.75/5 stars



2 Comments

  1. pmatill_imdoa
    PMAtill_ImDOA9/16/2011 7:14 PM | Permalink

    “Brian Fallon has got the blues.” that more or less sums up the album. That said, I LOVE it.

  2. crmulhern
    The Fenian9/17/2011 12:09 PM | Permalink

    You could always hear a little part of this side of him during, say, the acoustic versions of “American Slang,” but finally getting the chance to hear a full album of it was awesome.

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