Review: The Gaslight Anthem – Sink or Swim

Posted in Music, Review by jukeboxparables on March 27, 2009

Picture sociopolitical old-new punk Canadian band Against Me! only with Bruce Springsteen on vocals. What do you get? If you said The Gaslight Anthem, your wrong that would be pigeonholing. But you are close. I felt compelled to review their debut 2007 album entitled “Sink or Swim” simply because it’s been on repeat in my car, at home and on the portable music player and more importantly I think I’ve discovered what makes it tick.

Besides it being on repeat, the other reason It’s being mentioned here is because I’ve never been put-off more by an album upon first listen and then subsequently caved to its sentiments upon repeated listens. The Gaslight Anthem hail from New Brunswick, NJ, USA and lead singer Brian Fallon’s vocals growl with working-man like intent. I initially took issue with this, It’s easy to be flippant with newer bands in our day and age and question their sentiments. If you are one for flippancy you’d probably find yourself (initially) filing this band under done-to-death mainstream rock. You might even group them with certain late 90’s group’s who are utterly gag inducing. But wait, you’d be wrong.

You’d be wrong because what The Gaslight Anthem do best is make it genuine. As already mentioned my first listen to Sink or Swim left me wincing at certain quips and turn of phrase. I was wincing because bands from the late 90’s who shall remain un-named ruined it for everyone. Swathes of Southern-baritone-growl mainstream rock made open and fragile lyrical prose cliche and it’s been passe ever since. I was so sure a few years ago that such song writing would never be credible again.

Sink or Swim has possibly turned this all around on its own. Which isn’t to say The Gaslight Anthem’s writing is anything like that, these definitely aren’t cheap throw-away lines and the actual lyrics tell stories with a Dylan-esque trail of thought rather than being in the style of 3minute pop songs. I think the key to the songs are; what actually separates them from the straight-up Mainstream Rock tag is liberal use of Punk rhythms and change ups yet you can’t classify them as a Punk band.

This use of rhythm can be put down to genuine local influence; the New Brunswick underground or “basement” Punk scene which has given birth to some impressive acts over the years. The band themselves have described their sound as “Bruce Springsteen singing for a Cure cover band, with a tinge more aggression.” I’m not sure about the Cure cover band citing. But the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) is of course from New Jersey, so there again; genuine local influence.

When you realise The Gaslight Anthem are basically a proverbial sponge of The Hub City absorbing all that surrounds them and they really don’t give a shit what style that happens to be, you start to like them more. It’s that blend of Punk sentiment over traditional topical song writing that makes you remember their songs. They’re signed to Indie Label SideOneDummy But band motives aside let’s get onto the music as that’s what matters.

Sink or Swim kicks off with opening track “Boomboxes And Dictionaries” and is a quick indication of song writing approach. Slightly left-of-center lyrically as are most of the songs on the album. Liberal use of lyrics to tell the story rather than falling over themselves desperately to get back to that catchy chorus.

And if you’re scared of the future tonight, we’ll just take it each hour one at a time.
It’s a pretty good night for a drive, so dry up those eyes, dry up those eyes.
Because the radio will still play loud, songs that we heard as our guards came down.
Like in the summertime when we first met, I’ll never forget, don’t you forget, these nights are still ours.

Kicking off with as sing along moment that also gets the blood flowing is a good thing. But then they go one better with “I Could’a Been A Contender” Which song has the better chorus I’ll let you decide. Either way you’ll find yourself coming back to these two tracks more often then not.

There’s a dirty wind blowing, there’s a storm front coming
There’s an S.O.S. on the seas tonight
Steady now, steady now, soldier hold fast now
It’s heads or tails on heart attacks and broken dreams tonight

The pace continues throughout the first half of the album. Yes this is your favourite new driving album. Just watch those speed limits…

Things take a turn on “The Navesink Banks” where the Acoustic guitar is brought out for a soft yet resilient reminisce of the past which probably pays some ode to Tom Waits. A nice break in the pacing just at the right time.

“I’da Called You Woody, Joe” is apparently a track about Joe Strummer no less or the story of Brian’s first listen to The Clash presumably. This song resonates if your a Strummer fan or perhaps if you’ve seen The Future Is Unwritten particularly one of the later scenes where Joe is handing out flyers to one of his solo shows to people on the street who ignore him.

“Angry Johnny And The Radio” has one hell of a rolling breakdown that makes it one of the highlights of the back end of the album. Though for me the last track is one of particular note. “Red At Night” is a folk/blues inspired Acoustic come-down of sorts. Featuring a nice lazy harmonica channeling Bob Dylan perhaps? It wraps up the album nicely and nails home your sentiments; Sink or Swim is an album worth the time not only for its sing-a-long driving songs but for it’s vivid projections and tales of life in New Brunswick.

Rating: 7.7/10


1. “Boomboxes and Dictionaries” – 3:11
2. “I Coulda Been a Contender” – 3:22
3. “Wooderson” – 2:11
4. “We Came to Dance” – 3:34
5. “1930” – 3:48
6. “The Navesink Banks” – 2:48
7. “Red in the Morning” – 2:51
8. “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” – 3:21
9. “Angry Johnny and the Radio” – 3:00
10. “Drive” – 2:55
11. “We’re Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Diner” – 3:11
12. “Red at Night” – 3:07

The Gaslight Anthem
Sink Or Swim
Released: 2007
Label: SideOneDummy / XOXO Records


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