Fire Note Says: A surprisingly joyful outing, Sleepwalkers makes clear that while Brian Fallon is certainly interested in evolving, it’s not likely that he ever really will.
Album Review: Brian Fallon occupies a singular place in today’s rock and roll landscape.
Like fellow folk-rock travelers Dave Hause and Chuck Ragan, Brian Fallon is the former lead singer of a punk rock outfit with a cult following that survived the band’s heyday, and like any front man who strikes out on their own, he’s trying to find that musical sweet spot between nostalgia and progress; between what’s safe and what’s next.
But unlike his peers, Fallon has long been caught in a swirl of Springsteenian mythology and anticipation of rock and roll greatness; his evolution into the Next Savior of Rock and Roll ™ has been foretold by favorable critics for over a decade now. But after five records with The Gaslight Anthem, one with The Horrible Crowes, a rare EP with Molly and the Zombies and two solo releases, Fallon, now in his late thirties, has made one thing clear to detractors and champions alike: while he’s certainly interested in evolving…it’s not likely that he ever really will.
That hesitation is more apparent than ever on Sleepwalkers. It’s a surprisingly joyful outing, littered with light, jangly, up-tempo tracks, crunchy classic rock guitars and soaring organs, but even as the record emerges as Fallon’s most progressive and experimental to date, it doesn’t stray far from the consistent songwriting structures, blue collar themes and honest poetry that Fallon has dependably delivered for years.
As usual, he wears his influences right on his sleeve, tossing lyrical and thematic shout outs to classics like Etta James, The Beatles and The Clash alongside more contemporary artists like Florence and the Machine, Counting Crows and other familiar Fallon favorites along the way. He summons a vintage Jersey Shore Sound infused with soul, rhythm and blues and doo-wop; the warm organs and plucky, reverb-drenched guitars of “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven” and “Come Wander With Me” lend those songs an air of mystery and drama, while the percussion dares listeners not to tap their foot to the rhythm. A distinct, gospel and Motown-tinged vibe permeates nearly every track, binding them together to create an intoxicating environment of sound tailored for both somber reflection and shameless dancing; a record comprised of “melancholy songs that somehow [make] us feel a whole lot better,” as Fallon sings on lead single “Forget Me Not.”
On Sleepwalkers, as on each of his records, Fallon rarely strays from writing two types of songs: ones about the stories of struggling everyday people, and ones about the agonies of love and death. “Proof of Life” and “See You on The Other Side” are distinctly members of the latter camp, with “See You on the Other Side” finding the songwriter at his most lyrically vulnerable since The Horrible Crowes’ heart wrenching 2012 release Elsie. “And when we both grow old and there’s nothing left to say / I want you to know that I loved you all my days / and when we close our eyes on this lifetime / I’ll see you on the other side,” Fallon tells his lover, summoning the plain spoken ghost of Leonard Cohen to elicit the most complicated emotions with the simplest selections of words.
“Little Nightmares” is a bit of a fake-out, starting herky-jerky and disjointed before bursting into a thrilling headlong sprint that doesn’t let up until the song reaches its zenith. It’s followed by the title track, a genuinely bizarre brass-lead number that finds Fallon at his wackiest; there are few places fans won’t follow Fallon, but this track will push even his most loyal listeners to their limits as it unfurls like a needlessly beefed up B side from Tom Waits’ Closing Time or The Heart of Saturday Night. “Neptune” would be standard Fallon fare if not for the delightfully hokey bass-drums-and-organ main riff that throws the song out of its predictable rhythm and laces it with an unexpected, creepy fun. Cohen’s subtle lyrical touch again appears in spirit on “Watson,” on which Fallon croons “I worry when I get old I’ll be lonesome / chasing all the umbrellas in London,” lyric-checking The Magnetic Fields and treating listeners visual, evocative Fallon storytelling at its best and its least dramatic – an accomplishment for which this heavily romantic and typically indulgent songwriter deserves great praise.
But while Fallon’s lyrics are more poignant and restrained – and thus to greater effect than usual – Sleepwalkers, like its predecessor Painkillers, is almost unbelievably overproduced. Fallon’s best work is marked by abject vulnerability, honesty and rawness, and Ted Hutt makes many of the same mistakes Butch Walker did on Painkillers by smoothing over most of Fallon’s wonderfully rough edges. That being stated, it’s clear that Hutt’s instincts are a far stronger match for Fallon than Walker’s ever were, and overall, his approach encourages Fallon’s best habits, even if moments of real emotion are blunted in the process. It’s possible that Fallon would be best served in the future by working with a fellow punk traveler like Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace or Blind Melon guitar player Christopher Thorn, whose work on Chuck Ragan’s 2014 release Til Midnight captured all of Ragan’s raw strength and none of his weaknesses.
It’s not likely that Sleepwalkers will convert any new hardcore believers, but there’s more than enough feel-good rock and roll nostalgia, evocative writing and fun, finger-snapping rhythms to earn Fallon’s follow up a spot in any record player. Though Fallon may never end up meeting the soaring expectations adoring fans and favorable critics have thrust upon him, he has produced an incredible body of work in the meantime, and Sleepwalkers’ careful progress and safe genre experimentation lands itself a strong position in that discography.
Key Tracks: “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven” / “Come Wander With Me” / “See You On The Other Side”
Artists With Similar Fire: Dave Hause / Matthew Ryan / Jason Isbell
Brian Fallon Website
Brian Fallon Facebook
– Reviewed by Dylan Gallimore
Fire Note Says: Aussie country rocker with promise debuts States-side for Bloodshot Records.
Album Review: The second album from Ruby Boots roars out of the gate with “It’s So Cruel,” a cow-punk rocker that recalls the energy of Jason & The Scorchers. But before you get your hopes up, producer Beau Bedford (of The Texas Gentlemen), perhaps eager to display the singer/songwriter’s versatility, offers her up in the big doo-wop wall of sound of “Believe In Heaven,” nostalgic for the early days when Phil Spector was producing girl groups as rock & roll was first finding it’s way into the mainstream. “Don’t Talk About It,” the album’s title track, follows. It’s another ballad with orchestration that draws inspiration from that old school retro-sound.
Ruby Boots (real name, Bex Chilcott) comes from Australia via Nashville and had one previous album on an Aussie imprint before this debut on Bloodshot Records, a journey made by Kasey Chambers and others. Following the first three big production numbers, Boots sounds more at home on “Easy Way Out,” with a chord progression borrowed from the Tom Petty songbook, and the country weeper “Don’t Break My Heart Twice.”
The second half of the album sticks closer to country/rock formulas, with “I’ll Make It Through,” co-written and with harmony vocals by Nikki Lane, “Somebody Else” and “Infatuation,” are set up by punchy rhythms, strong vocal hooks, and solid, rocking guitars and minimal twang. Okay Boots has some twang in her voice on “Infatuation.” On these three, and the closing angry, country kick you to the curb slow burner with bluesy guitar and honky-tonk piano/organ that is “Don’t Give a Damn,” Boots sounds a bit like a young Lucinda Williams as the song heats up like a Rolling Stones’ song.
It’s the nearly a capella, almost hymnic “I Am A Woman,” that exhibits Boots’ voice in all it’s unique purity, in a spiritual song that declares her feminine gifts and her internal strength of being, echoing strength alongside vulnerability. On the whole this is a solid, inviting outing, driven by good songs and equally solid performances. Ruby Boots will be one to watch.
Key Tracks: “It’s So Cruel” / “Easy Way Out” / “Infatution”
Artists With Similar Fire: Nikki Lane / Lone Justice / Lydia Loveless
Ruby Boots Website
Ruby Boots Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb
Fire Note Says: Bill Mallonee is one of those best-kept secrets you really want to share with the rest of the music loving world.
Album Review: No one is ever going to call singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee an under-achiever. His latest release, a 10 song full-length effort, Forest Full of Wolves is his 78th album by his own count. Mallonee spent the 1990s fronting the Athens, GA-band Vigilantes of Love, shuffling from one label to the next, driving a van from coast-to-coast playing every alternative rock/Americana friendly venue who would let them. Hometown friend, Peter Buck (R.E.M.) co-produced one of the band’s early more-acoustic albums, the Killing Floor. The band’s 1999 album, released on three different labels of the course of 18 months, Audible Sigh was produced by Nashville’s favorite side-man Buddy Miller, and includes a guest vocal by Emmylou Harris, as well as some of Mallonee’s best loved songs. Paste Magazine has named him one of the 100 greatest living songwriters.
A rough count, say there were 10 songs per release (usually there were more), puts Mallonee’s songwriting output at nearly 8000, and those are the one’s he’s recorded. Now basic logic would suggest that they can’t all be good, and surely not all of them are memorable, but Mallonee’s work, his actual raison d’’etre, has proven especially consistent over the decades, and in the 2010’s he’s delivered a solid album’s worth of tunes each year, with a noticeable uptick in production values starting with 2011’s The Power & The Glory. Last year’s excellent The Rags of Absence was a case in point, with Mallonee especially attentive to his lead guitar parts.
Forest Full of Wolves continues to chronicle the challenges to working class people and even songwriters, as if Mallonee is creating his own musical version of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” for what he calls this “new dark age.” “Greed and fear (have) gained the upper hand,” he sings in “Changing of the Guard,” so he’s “grabbed a guitar & a notebook or two… became a phantom with some conjuring ‘neath the moon.”
Musically, Wolves takes the energy of Rags to the next level, with bigger, noiser guitar tones. Mallonee captures a Neil Young jamming with Crazy Horse in the garage vibe throughout, which is likely a lot harder to pull off since Mallonee’s playing all the instruments. Mid-tempo alternative country rock at it’s most earnest and relevant, and against all odds, Mallonee manages to offer a word of hope. “In the New Dark Age” he sings, borrowing the title from a different song that he recording on 2014’s The Winnowing, “the best thing you can do is fall in love.” Of course, “Love Is Always Risky Currency,” but it’s the best chance any of us have of surviving in this “Forest Full of Wolves.”
Like many artists scrambling to make art in the challenging digital marketplace and survive financially Mallonee has struggled to reach out and connect with Americana fans, break ground with new audiences, even though he’s stayed off the road in recent years. As a fan who first heard the singer songwriter live in the early 90’s, and many times over the years, Bill Mallonee is one of those best-kept secrets you really want to share with the rest of the music loving world. It’s artists who wear their passion on their sleeves, who keep pouring out their hearts in songs, that make the music that matters. (One reason to order the hard CD copy of this one, is the cover art produced by another singer songwriter, Chris Taylor, from San Antonio, TX.).
Key Tracks: “In the New Dark Age” / “Voodoo Ink” / “Trimmed & Burning”
Artists With Similar Fire: Neil Young / Bob Dylan / John Prine
Bill Mallonee Website
Bill Mallonee Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb