Quick Listen: Painkillers by Brian Fallon

brianfallonAs frontman of the band The Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon has dealt mostly in nostalgia, both in his band’s style of music and in the stories he’s told in their lyrics. You’d be hard-pressed to identify any of the songs on his solo albums as Brian Fallon songs rather than Gaslight Anthem songs. Sure, I suppose there’s more attention paid to his voice in the mix, but whatever studio musicians he has backing him up here are aiming for the same style as his usual band: anthemic classic rock. Of course, the fact that Fallon draws comparisons to rock heroes like Springsteen, Dylan, and Petty in interviews does his music no favors. If I’m reminded of Tunnel of Love when I listen to your album, I’m pleased; if you remind me that you want your album to sound like Tunnel of Love before I’ve listened to it, I’m unimpressed.

It’s a funny thing, being a rock star in 2016, mostly because there aren’t rock stars in 2016. The Gaslight Anthem was a moderately popular band with a stellar reputation as a live act and depreciating value as an album band until they broke up last July. But after four GA albums, could Fallon compile a Greatest Hits album? Could they do a reunion tour (because it is inevitable that they reunite)? Will GA get played on classic rock stations in the future? Rock doesn’t have a wide audience anymore. We need new expectations for rock musicians, and Fallon is playing by the old rules.

Quicker listen: If I don’t think about it, I enjoy it.

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Quick Listen: Know-It-All (2015) by Alessia Cara

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When Alessia Cara’s “Here” climbed up the Billboard Hot 100 this fall, it was one of the strangest non-Ryan Adams pop-related occurrences of 2015. It’s not that Cara’s not deserving; “Here” is one of my favorite songs of the year, and it’s one of the few pop songs in 2015 that sounds like it was born out of personal craft rather than a factory. But it’s the song of a misanthrope, an anthem built for introverts, as she rejects the advances of some guy in a club that doesn’t interest her among a crowd of people that aren’t her friends. The rest of the album isn’t nearly as rebellious- on the whole, Know-It-All sounds a lot like Rihanna singing teen-pop- but the introvert still makes an appearance in songs like “Four Pink Walls” and “Overdose”. I hear her label rushed this album out to capitalize on “Here”‘s success. I hope they give her time on the next album to make her own personal statement.

Quicker listen: If you hate people, you’ll love “Here”; if you love music, you’ll like Know-It-All.

Quick Listen: Natural Born Losers (2015) by Nicole Dollanganger

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If the album cover for Nicole Dollanganger’s Natural Born Losers creeps you out, then you probably shouldn’t listen to her music. There’s a seedy underbelly to America (or, in Dollanganger’s case, Canada), and she’s made it her duty to normalize it. Her connections to Grimes and Lana Del Rey are immediately evident in her little-girl voice and her baroque rhythms, though her lyrics are ultimately far darker than either of those artists’. She shoots down an angel and makes it into taxidermy in album opener “Poacher’s Pride”, bastardizes an old hymn into twisted stories in “In the Land”, and giving herself over to a sadistic high school hero in “You’re So Cool”. It’s not uplifting stuff, but it certainly is a fascinating perspective. While she sounds like the kind of young girl that would be taken advantage of in her own backwoods stories, she brings a masochistic agency to the proceedings that exposes society’s depravity rather than her own complicity.

Quicker listen: If Grimes and Lana Del Rey aren’t weird enough for you, Natural Born Losers should do the trick.

Quick Listen: All a Man Should Do (2015) by Lucero

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Lucero has been around long enough to merit conversation about their legacy, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to All a Man Should Do, which has the immediacy of a record from a younger band. There’s middle-age insecurity and ’90s nostalgia too, as well as tributes to Warren Zevon and Big Star, but Ben Nichols’s lyrics sound too hopeful to signal that the band is anywhere near the end of the road. Even their choice of a Big Star cover, “I’m in Love with a Girl”, on which Big Star member Jody Stephens sings backup, reflects a youthful excitement. A lot of up-and-coming bands strive to achieve a wisdom beyond their years; it takes a special band to maintain their vitality, still crazy after 17 years.

Quick Listen: That Kind of Girl (2015) by Amy Speace

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In keeping with this past week’s theme of singer-songwriters, Amy Speace belongs in the troubadour category. Well-respected by the Nashville scene, Speace’s voice is unconventional for what you might expect from folk music. She sings in a theatrical manner, which we could use more of in Americana, since her songs are always more emotive than the rest of the rather straightforward genre. That Kind of Girl is a break-up album, so it follows some of the routines of the form, with empowerment hymns (“Better Than This”) and kiss-offs (“Nothing Good Can Come from This”), but Speace balances the record out with some truly heartbreaking songwriting. She’s always had a knack for uncanny imagery, but the twist in “Raincoat” is especially affecting.

Quicker listen: My favorite song is the last one, “Epilogue (I Don’t Know How to Stop Loving You)”, which is just as wounded as it sounds.

Quick Listen: Imaginary Life (2015) by Worriers

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I’m only recently familiar with Lauren Denitzio’s art, but I understand her to be an open-minded individual who engages in many forms of creativity, not just music. She’s a relatively well-known DIY visual artist who lives in Brooklyn and also happens to front a punk band called Worriers. Just the band’s name resonates with my generation, since we’ve never had more access to information and therefore more access to every piece of bad news that comes across the airwaves to further convince us this world is irreparably broken. And yet their new album, Imaginary Life, is a very direct piece of work, handling its issues matter-of-factly and without pretense. They quickly resolve the pronoun issue surrounding transgenderism with “They / Them / Their”, burn through a call to protest on “Yes All Cops”, and disregard your disapproval by focusing on their “Plans”. Denitzio and I probably wouldn’t see eye to eye on some things, but I appreciate how much Imaginary Life strives to be the voice of a generation, while simultaneously sounding like they couldn’t care less if you listened.

Quicker take: Worried about what?

Quick Listen: Love Is Free (2015) by Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique

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Robyn has never quite caught on here in the States, at least not outside indie circles, and it’s a shame, because one listen to any of the songs on this EP exposes American Top 40 Radio as fraudulent. It might seem like songs titled “Lose Control” or “Set Me Free” don’t have much dissimilarities with songs like Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” or Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”, but there’s an edge to the Swedish Robyn’s lyrics that’s lacking in our pop music. Any EP with lyrics like “Imma give it like a mother / Safe like a rubber” or “It’s all over this city / Sometimes in the nitty, sometimes in the gritty” (referring to love, by the way) knows what it’s doing in a way that our silly songs can’t compare to.

Quicker take: Pop music made by grown-ups for grown-ups.