On the return of heartland rock (part II)
If you haven’t yet read the first part of this blog, I ask you to please do that before reading further.
In the part one, I briefly defined heartland rock and gave you an overview of some of its best acts, before promising to tell you about the “return” in this one. So here it goes….
To start with, I don’t think this new crop of artists can be called strictly heartland rock. Most of them are influenced by punk rock as well. Not that that is unusual. After all, Bruce Springsteen wrote songs for Patti Smith and originally wrote “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones. John Mellencamp was heavily influenced by both Dylan, Guthrie, and early “proto punk” artists such as Lou Reed, Roxy Music, and the Stooges. And Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were even classified as a punk rock band by some in the early days.
So I guess we could call this offshoot of the genre “heartland punk” or “indie heartland” or something else just as pretentious. I just call it what it is: damn good music.
I’ve already told you a little bit about the first of the bands I’m going to mention. The New Jersey-based rock band Titus Andronicus obviously owes a lot to Springsteen and many other artists. I previously reviewed their album The Monitor on here and you can find all you need to know about them there.
But there are two other new albums out now which I also think signal the ongoing resurgence of heartland rock.
The first is Somewhere on the Golden Coast, the third album from California rockers The Henry Clay People, who I was turned onto by a free mp3 download of one of their tunes on the Drive-By Truckers website.
Like the early records of the Heartbreakers, this album was so overpowering musically that every aspect of it, including the singer’s distinctive a voice (a cross between Dylan and Joey Ramone), was a diversion from allowing you to concentrate on the lyrics. But this 21st century bar band rock can certainly get you onto the dance floor and sometime around the fifth listen when I made a conscious effort to listen to just the lyrics I heard anthems about “Working Part Time” and lines that many people could relate to such as “If your fancy school put you back into debt/I’ll sell my favorite guitar so you can pay your rent”. And the medium-paced “This Ain’t a Scene” with it’s slide guitar and lyrics about a “generation caught in between” is a major highlight of the album and “A Temporary Fix” and the piano-infused closing track “Two Lives at the End of the Night” show that the band can certainly slow it down without losing any of their power. Meanwhile “Saturday Night” sounds like a classic Mellencamp tune from his American Fool period and “Your Famous Friends” is the type of track, like “Spirit in the Night” that you know would sound a lot better live even though the studio track is flawless.
The second album is American Slang by the Gaslight Anthem who would come in a close second to Titus Andronicus for title of “Best New New Jersey Artist since Springsteen”. American Slang will be released on Tuesday, June 15 but I received an advance copy of it and have been listening to it for weeks.
But before I tell you about that, I want to tell you about their last album, The ’59 Sound just in case you missed it.
Just check out how The ’59 Sound opens: about 10 seconds of vinyl hissing and popping (this is on the CD version) and a single guitar lick before the drums come in and the singer says: “Mary, this station is playin’ every sad song I remember like we were alive/I heard it Sunday mornin’ from inside of these walls in a prison cell, where we spent those nights/And they burnt up the diner where I always used to find her licking young boys blood from her claws/And I learned about the blues from this kitten I knew, her hair was raven and her heart was like a tomb”. A nod to “Thunder Road”? Almost certainly. But the band also borrows a line directly from Seger’s “Night Moves” by the time the song is over.
The title track follows and then the mid-tempo “Old White Lincoln” about “a dream I remembered from an easier time”. The next track “High Lonesome” mentions hearing “Southern Accents” the radio and lead singer Brian Fallon’s wish that he “looked like Elvis” and that “in his head there’s all these classic cars and outlaw cowboy bands”. Odes to “Film Noir” and listening to Miles Davis follow and then “The Patient Ferris Wheel” (“we can take a seat at the bar with the other broken heroes”). “Casanova, Baby” is a Springsteen-inspired rockabilly bar band track with lyrics filled with references to ’60s R&B songs amidst the story of Fallon taking his girl out of this “dead man’s town”.
One of the album’s highlights is “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”, where the band introduces a cast of characters like Seger’s Lucy Blue or Springsteen’s Crazy Janey and declares that they “still love Tom Petty songs”. “Meet Me by the River’s Edge” is a definite ode to “Racing in the Streets”, while the best track on the album “Here’s Looking at You, Kid” is a heartbreaking look at life on the edge of stardom and looking back at his life growing up. The album closes with the “The Backseat”, a bittersweet rocker about youth.
Know what? I’ll review American Slang later. Because right now I gotta go give The ’59 Sound another listen.
But my main point is this: these bands will probably never be on the cover of Rolling Stone or on VH1’s top 20 countdown, but there is a segment of the rock community where t-shirts and blue jeans are cool again. But why take my word for it? Just ask the Boss.