The Horrible Crowes: Elsie

Written by September 12th, 2011 at 6:25 pm

The Horrible Crowes
Elsie
(SideOneDummy)
Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Blazing out New Jersey like the bastard sons of Bruce Springsteen, the Gaslight Anthem have hammered out some truly anthemic songs set in the ironically named Garden State. The quartet embraced the Boss not as a trendy influence, but as a birthright, which means they populated their songs with the kind of hardscrabble characters who are underrepresented in rock music today. Sounding like he sang from experience, frontman Brian Fallon cultivated the grit and grain in his voice and treated his songs like treasures salvaged from back alleys and street gutters rather than like compositions written down on paper. At their best, the band plumbed realism for rock uplift; every other time, they sounded like a band with some killer deep-album cuts.

After three albums by the Gaslight Anthem, Fallon has formed a solo project with his guitar tech Ian Perkins, and the name the Horrible Crowes sounds like a jab at Chris Robinson. Why he chose that particularly horrible moniker is less a mystery than why he decided to go solo in the first place. Elsie trades power and riffs for vague late-night atmosphere and gets scammed in the process. Instead of breaking new ground, these songs sound more like Anthem outtakes, only with less agility and emotional force behind the roughed-up guitars, thick production, and bridge-and-tunnel characters.

Without his day-job band, all of Fallon’s weaknesses come to the fore. He has always strained to hit certain notes and convey certain ideas, but in the past, what he lacked in range he made up for with an authority that came from feeling deeply for his characters, believing absolutely in his lyrical sentiments, and just generally putting himself out there. On “Behold the Hurricane” and even the mostly sung-spoken “I Witnessed a Crime,” he no longer comes across like he’s working to get the song across. Rather than confident, he sounds cold, detached, uninvested even when he’s screaming the chorus of “Mary Ann” or nearly whispering “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together.”

Perhaps the quality of his songwriting determines the quality of his singing: Elsie sounds like a step down from his Gaslight Anthem fare, lacking the emotional and regional details that make that band’s songs sound so lived in. Effortlessly evocative in the past, Fallon now stretches for details and works hard to set a scene, and on “Cherry Blossoms” and “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together” the results are typically over-romanticized and unconvincing. “I can smell him on your skin, I bet I taste him in your blood,” Fallon tells one cheating lover, in the album’s most Twilight moment.

Of course, every woman on Elsie cheats. In the past Fallon has come close to blatant condescension toward the opposite sex, and perhaps it was too generous of us to view him as simply a man writing about his romantic troubles—an archetype that predates even rock and roll. But any sympathy he might have earned is lost on the stalker-rific “Sugar” (“Nobody knows you like I do”) and the spectacularly creepy “Mary Ann” (“Put your tiny hands inside my hands… Jesus gonna be here soon”). As Elsie proceeds, it grows increasingly egregious, reaching its nadir on “Black Betty & the Moon.” Fallon makes a chorus of “you did the very thing, baby, that I asked you not to do,” singing the line like he’s scolding a misbehaving toddler. Maybe he means “baby” literally?

To be generous, Fallon is probably no misogynist. He just plays one on Elsie. It can be a bit hard to stomach, especially without the redeeming Anthem behind him. Maybe this Horrible project was just something he needed to get out of his system, but hopefully he’ll get busy on a Gaslight album stat to erase the bad memory of this faceplant.

 

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