“Elsie”, the debut record from Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon’s side project the Horrible Crowes, offers a wide range of sounds: half of the record picks up where Gaslight’s last record, “American Slang”, left off; while the other half dives deep into new experimentation.
The Horrible Crowes project is essentially a duo consisting of Fallon and longtime friend and guitar tech Ian Perkins. The group began writing songs on the last Gaslight Anthem tour, influenced by PJ Harvey, the National, and other moody artists. On “Elsie”, each player’s role is clearly defined in the group: Fallon sings and forms the songs’ structures; and Perkins adds the flourishes that define the music, like slide guitar and organ.
The result of the collaboration is, when compared to Gaslight Anthem, both familiar and new. “Elsie” songs “Crush” and the leadoff single “Behold the Hurricane” recall recent Gaslight tunes “Bring it On” and “American Slang,” respectively. These are the most straightforward and upbeat rock songs on the album, which says something about this project: The Crowes at their peak volume recalls some of Gaslight’s more subdued moments. “Go Tell Everybody” is another rocker, this one with a great melody and more organ and R&B conviction than Gaslight could ever offer.
The experimentation is heavy on other “Elsie” songs; Fallon seems eager to delve into other genres without the burden of writing for a straightforward rock band. “Mary Ann” is rough and heavy, with Fallon delivering his vocals in a nearly Tom Waits fashion. “Black Betty and the Moon,” on the other hand, is all texture, with light drums and acoustic guitars. “I Witnessed a Crime” is a barroom ballad, with tons of organ and slide guitar. And “Ladykillers,” one of the best songs from “Elsie”, recalls latter-day U2, with Fallon doing his best Bono-ballad impression on the first verse.
The ballads are the real focal point for “Elsie”, as they directly contrast most of the Gaslight repertoire. The album’s opening two tracks set the tone for the whole record: the short intro “Last Rites” gives way to the impressively somber “Sugar.” The beautiful “Cherry Blossoms” sets the record’s low point, at least as far as mood and energy go, until the album’s closer “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together” brings the record to an end in a slow, spare way. “We Did it When We Were Young,” Fallon’s lament from American Slang, suggested that these ballads were coming, but nothing on American Slang was this moody or desperate.
That’s not to say any of the songs on “Elsie” are bad. If anything, they offer a larger picture of what exactly Fallon is capable of. Gaslight’s punk rock blues from Sink or Swim and hero worship of The ’59 Sound have given way to a more introspective, diverse sound, and that sound translates into the Horrible Crowes music. Side projects are usually written off as unnecessary or obscure, but “Elsie” is definitely a record to check out, and not for just the die-hard Gaslight Anthem fan.
(Kent Montgomery is a Staff Writer for the The Wittenberg Torch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)