Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, today we continue with number 4, culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press. Their site has gone dark, but I am able to salvage those reviews from my original files, generally.
The general hipster apathy surrounding an artist like Jesse Malin makes me want to strangle somebody. Everyone I've ever enticed to one of his shows has left a convert. Still, his aesthetic is a little too old school for all of the attitude dancers. You know what? Here's the message ... and listen close ... think for yourself, feel something. If you're part of some sub-cult from which you are deriving your identity, wake up - It will eventually consume your individuality. The ethos of rock 'n' roll, its deepest essence is about celebrating the joy of life and extending a big fat finger to anyone and anything that stands in the way. Jesse Malin gets that. If you're extending an awkward glance toward the guy next to you who might think he's hipper than you while stressing about what he thinks of you (whooo) ... get a life!
10 (tie). J. Roddy Walston and the Business - s/t (Vagrant)
10 (tie). Aloe Blacc - Good Things (Stones Throw)
9. Roky Erickson & Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti-Epitaph)
8. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest (4AD)
7. Wounded Lion - s/t (In the Red)
6. Diamond Rings - Special Affections (Secret City Records)
5. Bleach Bloodz - Pure Rock N Roll / Live and Raw / Devil Magick (local releases)
4. Jesse Malin & St. Mark’s Social – Love it to Life (SideOneDummy)
Punk energy, classic rock n’roll songwriting, passion, smarts – what else ya need?
Sample hipster conversation:
Zach: “Hey, how did it go with Zadie last night?’
Zeke: “Ah, she was a deck tassel, I guess. She was nice.”
Zach: “Dude, I introduce you to a beautiful raven haired babe with dark eyes who reads Dave Eggers and Rick Moody and ‘nice’ is all you have to say?”
Zeke: “Yeah, okay, she was no average chipper.”
Zach: “Did she give you the frigidaire?”
Zeke: “Not at all. But isn’t she kind of mallternative? Don’t you know any three-legged chicks with magenta eyes who speak Esperanto backwards?”
Here I sit at my wife’s expensive computer (“fancy Apple laptop”- as Iggy once sang) knowing that I just won’t be able to ‘sell’ Jesse Malin to hipsters looking for the musical equivalent of three-legged chicks with magenta eyes who speak Esperanto backwards.
Screw’em. Jesse’s great. And so is his new record Love it to Life.
Ah, don’t cry for Jesse Malin. Yeah, he’s moved from label to label, struggled to break beyond an adoring cult audience (at least he has one), and he wound up back in New York broke in 2008 after trying in vain to take the excellent Glitter in the Gutter to the proverbial ‘next level.’ He slept on his sister’s couch uptown, a long Lexington Avenue train ride from his East Village and LES haunts, and contemplated a life beyond rock n’roll. Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of film director Shane Salerno. Salerno was working on a documentary about the late author J.D. Salinger and suggested that Malin write some songs for the film.
An avid childhood fan of Salinger, Malin re-read Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and the rest of Salinger’s oeuvre, contemplated them from his 42-year old perspective, and decided that what he really needed to do was meet the great man. Instead, he got arrested for trespassing. Apparently, he had to find a YouTube video of his duet with Springsteen (“Broken Radio,” from Glitter in the Gutter) to persuade the cops that he wasn’t just some nutball stalker. Hey, tell Bob Dylan about it, huh?
Of course J.D. bought the farm. I’m sure that Malin, like thousands of fans, was saddened (I was). But he was probably grateful to the old buzzard too, because Malin’s Salinger homage/adventures inspired a new plunge back into songwriting. “The Archer” and “Lonely at Heart” are directly derived from the Salinger fixation. Beyond that, revisiting Salinger, along with producer Ted Hutt’s (Lucero, Gaslight Anthem, Flogging Molly) guidance compelled Malin to focus on writing a collection of songs that spoke to his twin obsessions with rock music and New York City and their inseparability in Malin’s story.
The result is Love it to Life, Malin’s best record yet (although The Fine Art of Self-Destruction and Glitter in the Gutter are no slouches). Rehearsed in the basement of an Avenue A bar and recorded cheap and cheerful at Greenpoint’s Mission Studio and Sonic Youth’s Think Tank in Hoboken, LITL features the closest thing to a working band that Malin’s worked with since the demise of D Generation – a loose, but rocking ensemble dubbed the St. Mark’s Social. It’s obviously enough of a band &in Malin’s mind to be co-billed on the album cover. The album title comes from a dedication Joe Strummer made for an autograph requested by a teenage Malin – “Love it to Life, Joe Strummer.” It’s also a twist on Alice Cooper’s best record Love it to Death, something I’m pretty sure that Joe and Jesse both were altogether aware of.
The Clash’s “Gates of the West” was included on Malin’s cover-thon, the 2008 release On Your Sleeve, and among the inspirations for LITL there’s something about the Clash vibe that stands out, especially the punk-goes-sentimental feel of Give’em Enough Rope, probably the great underrated Clash record. LITL blasts off with “Burning on the Bowery,” much as “Safe European Home” instigated GER. In Blood on the Tracks fashion Malin establishes the length and depth of his connection to the street that spawned CBGB’s, going back to his grandfather’s days selling liquor on The Bowery and up through “Ginsberg’s tears and Thunder’s cross.”
“All the Way from Moscow” (Mott the Hoople, nod to) with its images of a Russian girl who insists that “the twin towers was an inside job” and of a gypsy “playing nylon string guitar” flies by in the track two position at break-neck pace. Both songs feature spare, communicative sparring from the St, Mark’s Social and Malin’s classicist affection for girl group cum Ramones “whoo/whoa” choruses.
Girls - Jesse’s always letting the good ones get away; the Salinger inspired “The Archer” sounds something like Steve Earle produced by Phil Spector and includes opining lyrics like “one girl I never got over, stupid cupid missed, six shots and I fell like a soldier.”
Like “Burning on the Bowery,” “St. Mark’s Sunset” localizes Malin’s New York rock universe. It projects both an autobiographical arc and pop-lovers melody in common with Ian Hunter, serenading the kids “from the outskirts and the suburbs” who hung out with Malin in his hardcore (Heart Attack, his first band) punk days, acknowledges the changes in style and fashion, but remembers “when we used to laugh at everybody walkin’ past” as if that much might not really have changed.
All of these tunes have infectious melodies and heartfelt lyrics. Passé maybe; I don’t know. But if, like me, you groove on that sort of thing, LITL can’t come more highly recommended. Smart fan that he is, Malin has great taste that’s evidenced in his music. “Disco Ghetto” sounds like Joey Ramone touched by a little rhythm n’ blues. “Burn the Bridge,” a clarion call to the “kids” to stake a chance on a different kind of future (their own and America’s), is equal parts Springsteen and the Replacements.
There’s a touch of Strokes guitar styling to “Revelations,” a rousing rocker that raises familiar Malin themes of renewal and redemption, as he declares he will “make a transformation like Bowie in Berlin.” The breathless “Black Boombox” memorializes days spent on the pavement and down in the basement listening to the soundtrack of a lifetime as Malin name checks the Miracles and the Only Ones.
With its slower tempo, Suicide meets Springsteen atmospherics, and starkly downbeat lyrics “Lonely at Heart” is a stop-you-in-your-tracks capper to an album that, despite its varied lyrical terrain, is a certified rock n’roll upper. But it’s perfect, really. It nails expressly the sometimes-dark undertow that informs Malin’s lyrical vision even on the breezier tunes. The singer’s “angel never shows;” he “drinks in self-defense’” and addresses the almighty “Dear God, like is hell.” Inspired by a Salinger short story, one can assume that the perspective is not entirely personal, but Malin sings his lyric from an emotional place that swears he’s more than a little acquainted with the protagonist’s emotional pit. A faint piano figure paraphrasing a melody line from Alice Cooper’s Love it to Death record closes the album with a nod and a wink.
There you have it. A rich, imagistic, deeply personal collection of songs produced by a mature, but vibrant singer-songwriter and the best band he’s ever put together. A masterful punk-rock serenade with roots that transcend a present where, as Malin says “you can download something in five minutes into your toothbrush.”
Sold? If not, maybe I can hook you up with that three-legged, magenta-eyed chick that speaks Esperanto backward.
Reverberating: 9.1 (original), upgraded to 9.3