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Jesse Malin - Glitter in the Gutter Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    2
sound:    4
released:    2007
label:    Sony
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageAs much as I love Bob Dylan and will readily acknowledge his incalculable contribution to the craft of songwriting and the American identity, he is the Big Bang that created more bad music than any other artist in the rock canon. He might not have invented the guise of the guitar-strumming troubadour, rolling from town to town baring his soul and shining light on the truth, but the multitude of songwriters who have followed him down the path toward heart-on-sleeve earnestness and instant integrity by simply opening their journals and singing through their noses makes for a truly mixed legacy. The problem is, being a troubadour isn’t easy, as very few songwriters have the ability to both view their personal experiences through the context of humanity’s greater struggle and retain a distinct sense of self, leaving a generation of artists stumbling over self-important musings and major chord progression clichés. For every Bruce Springsteen or Townes Van Zandt who figured out how to cut their own path through the tangled glut of singer-songwriters, there are 50 who never got past open mic night in their town. Truth be told, that’s where most of them belong.

And then there’s Jesse Malin, the former lead vocalist and songwriter for ‘90s glam-punk band D Generation, who, upon the dissolution of his former band, made the easy choice to adopt the garb of the mature singer-songwriter. Nearly 40 and done with the greasy kid’s rock of his past, he did what all former punks do when their bands break up – he dropped the distortion and became a journal-toting singer-songwriter. With Glitter in the Gutter, he’s back to ponder the troubled state of the modern world.
Designed as an album to inspire his generation to push past despair and take a more active role in their world and communities, Malin’s third solo release is a well-intentioned but poorly realized rallying call that never really gets around to its point. Opener “Don’t Let Them Take You Down (Beautiful Day)” is exactly the kind of vaguely imagined and blandly executed drivel that dominates the set. “Know your rights/ don’t let them take you down,” he warns, never really specifying who “they” are or what rights are endangered as he sings over a backdrop of thoughtfully manicured electric guitars and rich piano strikes. Not pointed enough to be a protest record or clever enough to be a personal examination of war through the lens of the common man, Malin’s latest effort suggests that the only real solution is simply to hope for the best. “All the people/ all the people run,” he sings on a verse that leads into a stereotypically earnest guitar solo. “All the while we’re trying to find the sun,” he continues, the first of many easy rhyme clichés. It only gets worse from there.

There are romanticized tales of restlessness and escapism (“Black Haired Girl”) bumping up against lifeless country-rock love songs (“Lucinda”). There are sickeningly sunny well- wishes to friends (“Happy Ever After [Since You’re in Love 2007]”). There are vaguely political mentions of a violent struggle within a crumbling superpower (“Prisoners of Paradise”). A classicist from start to finish, Malin peoples songs with the movie star dreams of youth and the hopes for a renewed faith, and there is little depth beneath the occasional clever turn of phrase or catchy melody. Simply put, these are songs that sound like the work of someone who is trying to write like a singer-songwriter.

Musically, Malin has no ideas past the standard I-IV-V chord progressions and shifts between pensive verses to sing-along choruses and back and again. These are songs that are tailored for the VH1 demographic, and there is nary a moment that doesn’t sound careful and calculated. That said, some tracks are better than others, from the plaintive string-laden piano balladry of “Broken Radio,” a track where Springsteen turns up to add backing vocals and a rare moment of rough-hewn soul. The wistfully nostalgic soft-rock of “NY Nights” is similarly effective, with breezy choruses and memories of a simpler way of life adding up to one of the album’s most genuinely human moments. Otherwise, there’s simply little worth saying about most of the tracks, and if you’ve heard any roots-minded singer-songwriter – from John Mellancamp to Ryan Adams – you’ve heard this before. Unfortunately, he’s probably a better tunesmith than he is a lyricist.

One of the album’s most musically insubstantial tracks, “Love Streams” bounces from vague entreaties to not waste any more time to follow your dreams to chase love, but those sentiments seem patronizing and overly simplistic. Time and again, Malin trips over his better intentions, writing songs crammed full of hazy platitudes and feel-good sentiments that seem more forced than authentic. As before, Malin is at his best when he simply drops the pretense of trying to heal the world’s wounds and talks about himself. Another seize-the-day anthem, “Tomorrow Tonight” benefits from Malin’s self-searching portrait of a young man desperate for love and truth, growing into a wiser man with simpler dreams. “I sold my soul to the Devil/I had it all and got bored,” he sings longingly. “Give me a ride on the old cyclone/count me in like Dee Dee Ramone.”

All in all, I have no doubt Jesse Malin is a very sincere and likeable fellow. It’s easy to respect the spirit with which he approaches this release, trying to make one penetrating shot of hope to cut through the negativity of the world climate. But as an artist, he just isn’t nearly interesting enough to carry out his ambitions. As songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle have shown, the circumstances of war and tragedy can be a rich text for a songwriter to explore with all the anger, confusion, and humanity they have at their disposal. But using the troubled world context as a pretense to issue an album of vague angst and half-hearted optimism is lazy and unconvincing. His heart may be in the right place, but Glitter in the Gutter is just depressing.

Purely a product of its times, Glitter in the Gutter sounds exactly like every other singer-songwriter release you’ve heard over the past 20 years. The vocals are up front and nasal, the choruses are smooth and layered in backing vocals and a surging bed of keyboards and electric guitars, and if you listen closely you’ll hear all the solos and tempo changes in the exact places you’d expect. Taken as a whole, it sounds perfectly fine, but the unobtrusive production leaves the album a lifeless mass of commonplace guitar textures and brightly malted harmonies. There is not one thing here that will surprise you.

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