In between the incessant touring and promotion for The Gaslight Anthem’s successful 2010 release “American Slang,” lead singer Brian Fallon wrote a lot of new songs. It would be easy to assume that these songs would build the framework for the next Gaslight Anthem record, but he found that these new songs didn’t really fit with their style. So when the band took a break, Fallon teamed up with longtime friend and Gaslight Anthem guitar tech Ian Perkins to form a side project called The Horrible Crowes. “Elsie,” their debut album, trades in The Gaslight Anthem’s blend of Springsteen worship and punk rock for a sound that could be described as Tom Waits meets The National – or as Fallon says: “soul music for lonely kids.”
The new sound works extremely well. “Elsie” is definitely a departure from Fallon’s past work, pairing his smoky voice with guitar, organ, piano, accordion, horns and strings. It’s certainly Fallon’s most dynamic record – the variety of styles really allows him to show off his vocal versatility. On “I Witnessed a Crime,” he casually whispers the lyrics over a surprisingly catchy organ riff. “Mary Ann,” one of the album’s best tracks, ventures into classic rock territory by combining Fallon’s best Tom Waits growl with scorching blues guitar. “Sugar” has the makings of a hit song, and I mean that in the best way possible. With a few fancy studio tricks and a well-known R&B singer, the song wouldn’t sound out of place on the charts.
Ultimately though, the soul of the record lies in Fallon’s powerful lyrical imagery. He has a unique gift for penning lines that can simultaneously break your heart (“And if I drove straight off this bridge/ Only God and my baby would know”) and make you reach for a dictionary (“My first love was an arsonist / black eyes, deep set and avarice”).
While Fallon’s own lyrics are great, one of the most powerful moments comes on the track “Crush” when he borrows an entire verse from the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” singing it over and over as the track builds to an intense finish.
I feel I must warn you: “Elsie” is a pretty heavy record. It’s not an album to blast by the pool on a summer afternoon. Rather, “Elsie” is a fitting soundtrack for those rainy Sunday nights when you’ve stayed up entirely too late. And maybe that will disappoint a few of the kids who wish Fallon was still bashing out punk songs and singing about girls named Maria, but The Gaslight Anthem will be back soon, and when taken on its own terms, “Elsie” is one of the best albums so far this year.