The Horrible Crowes Elsie album review
Blood all over the tracks - Brian Fallon gets personal.
Side projects in rock rarely seem to thrive, but artists can't resist them. In some cases it satisfies an instinct that the artist is such an all-encompassing genius that their gift cannot be accommodated by just one outlet. In others it’s an awareness that you have to get as much stuff out while your muse is still supplying, because the good gear can dry up any day. And will.
Brian Fallon’s Horrible Crowes arrive as a fully-fledged statement of intent, not so much a dabbling in a new direction as a mission shift, a whole new front in his war against bland mediocrity. His cohort is Ian Perkins, who provides some spectacular, and subtle, soundscapes for Fallon's venture into the unhinged realms of abandoned romantic despair.
The Brian Fallon we’ve seen in his day job fronting the estimable Gaslight Anthem is a blue-collar everyman, Jersey in every corpuscle, raising the rafters with anthems of manly sentiment. He’s a terminal romantic of course, an indulgence made easier by seeming to set most of his Gaslight songs in a kind of alternative reality made up of 60s and 70s movies, Greetings From Asbury Park virtual landscapes, where the boys listen to their heroes at 33rpm rather than messing around with modern devices like CDs or MP3s.
That amiable gent is conspicuous by his absence from Elsie (Side One Dummy records). Instead we meet his dark troubled alter ego. Bad Brian is a mite less approachable, because he has been done wrong. By a girl, naturally. He spells it out quite simply in Last Rites , the opening track and overture to the grand guignol production that will follow, with the simple statement, “My baby just ain’t no good.” The rest of the album goes into devastating detail about the many ways she ain't no good.
We start with the disarmingly seductive Sugar , a beautifully smouldering ballad of reproach that taps into Deep South revue, Motown, modern R & B, country-soul. The yearning and regret establish that our narrator has lost something worth having.
Crush is utterly irresistible, starting out as a plangent little 70s rock song with a cute radio-friendly melody that seems headed for familiar pastures. Halfway through it changes gear abruptly, lurching into a multi-layered spiritual chant of “God’s gonna trouble the water”, building, sustaining, and reaching a pinnacle of glory when the sweet backing vocals swoop in with their “crush on yous”. It leaves you grinning and impressed,
Mary Ann shows a similar joy in invention, battering through the opening like mid-80s Tom Waits fronting AC/DC, before some of Fallon’s most blistering vocals offer a preview of the madness to come.
Lyrically Elsie is coruscating, often startlingly raw, momentarily a little ridiculous. Any lover who regales his girl with the preposterous assertion that “I’m not the man you loved, behold the hurricane”, perhaps deserves to be laughed right out of her bed. There a similarly clumsy moment in the blustery coda to Go Tell Everybody , where the singer self-importantly states “I was a man of great sympathy, when I loved you baby, but tonight all my sympathy is gone.” He sings “gone” as if the word is being wrenched out him with pliers, and the effect tends towards the comical rather than the tragic.
Blood and Fire
It’s churlish to dwell on these moments though, because hey, this is a man in pain. No more so than in the violent, intemperate disgust and disdain of Blood Loss. This is the album’s unforgettable track, starting off as a brooding, melodic lament, building scarily through increasingly violent imagery. The singer has become a deranged, wounded force of nature, and the song lurches into real menace, as the tempo and volume rise. "I’ll tell you when it’s over," Fallon howls, "I’ll tell you when you can breathe, I’ll tell you when you’ve cried long enough , when your blood fills my cup." All that talk of blood isn’t leading to a happy ending, and sure enough the song ends with sirens, coming and going, a cryptic lyric, but by now the listener is imagining the worst.
With this stunning piece of sustained bitterness, we’re into those realms where you start worrying whether the sentiment is misogynistic. You could say the same of Dylan’s Idiot Wind though: with a song this raw, it might not be appropriate to start applying the gender politics yardstick. There’s blood on all the tracks on Elsie; the characteristic which will keep you coming back for more, even if at times it can feel like staring at the aftermath of a wreck on the highway.