Jesse Malin - New York Before the War (One Little Indian)

Jesse Malin – New York Before the War (One Little Indian)

In the 90s Jesse Malin’s band D Generation used to hang out at Sidewalk Café in the East Village where I lived. Us squatter, starving artists looked down on them as not being ‘punk’ enough, but one thing I had to hand them, they LOOKED like a band, which was more than could be said for the ratty musical combos I slung my six string with. What’s the point of this story, you might ask? I’m not sure, but it has something to do with perseverance and dedication.

New York Before the War is Jesse’s seventh solo album. Inspired by graffiti Jesse saw on a wall outside his Avenue C apartment, it’s anyone’s guess what ‘the war’ refers to, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say ‘the war’ refers to the gentrification juggernaut that started under Mayor Koch and reached critical mass under Giuliani. It washed the danger and dirt from the Gotham streets, driving rents to astronomical heights and taking with it so much of what made New York cool, fun, hip, exciting, brilliant and inspiring. Jesse certainly was around in the days before the ‘war’, hopping graffiti-covered subway trains from the sterile suburban prison of Queens, to the grimy Manhattan streets as a 13 year old with his friends, hanging out at punk shows and eventually playing gigs himself with his first band.

Those days are gone, as is D Generation, but we do have New York Before the War – an eclectic, ambitious album that falls just short of brilliant. The story goes that there’s really two albums here: one recorded in Virginia, full of acoustic ballads and another one recorded in New York with some kickass musicians featuring only up-tempo tunes, as Jesse second-guessed his decision of releasing a ballads-only album. Comprising the best of both sessions, the yin and yang of sad ballads and stampeding rockers works quite well.

The album starts off with ‘Dreamers’, a wistful ballad over meditative piano chords, that builds majestically, bringing to mind Firewater at their most melodramatic.  ‘Addicted is a perfect pop-punk tune, catchy as hell, full of nifty guitar hooks and telling the tale of New York in all its ragged glory as local boy Jesse Malin remembers it.  ‘Turn up the Mains’ takes us back to the heyday of CBGB’S, a burning rocker that sounds like a slightly more polished Richard Hell and the Voidoids .

‘Sheena’ brings back that punk icon of yore, the girl from the Ramones’ famous anthem. Strangely the song sounds more like IDM, or maybe a revisited Television. Still, another winner, head bopping toe-tapping punk-pop perfection.  ‘She’s so Dangerous’ falls into the ballad category. It’s full of good intentions and features some pretty piano playing, but misses the mark. A whole album of ballads would have been hard to take, even though the song kind of redeems itself with the guitar freak-out at the end. ‘Boots of Immigration’ starts out with definite echoes of no wave a la Gang Of Four, but then veers into Springsteen territory evoking the pathos of his Born to Run era.

‘Freeway’ has the most bad ass groove of the entire record and features a ripping guitar solo by none other than MC5’s Wayne Kramer.  ‘She Don’t Love Me Now’ is a cross between an urban reggae groove and the kind of neo-soul that has been perfected by The Daptones. From the soulful backup vocals to the groovy horn section, this song once again is downtown pop perfection.  And there’s more where that came from: ‘Deathstar’ also captures lightning in a bottle, condensing four decades of underground pop into one perfect package, from new wave disco to Beach Boys style harmonies to twangy surf punk guitar.

The album is bookended by two equally mournful ballads. ‘Bar Life’ is a drinking song about an immigrant who watches his dreams disappear down a bottle of alcohol.  New York Before the War is an album that looks backwards and forwards, both stylistically and thematically. Songs like ‘Turn up the Mains’ capture some of the raw energy of the old guard of NYC punk while remaining firmly grounded in the here and now. The plaintive ballads showcase Jesse’s range as a songwriter and performer, but also his limitations as a singer. Some of his attempts at evoking emotion veer dangerously close to 70s style schmaltz, but that’s a minor quibble.

New York Before the War is a majestic, ambitious album that covers a lot of ground and shows an artist at the top of his game. I warmly recommend it.


New York Before the War was released on 30th March 2015 through One Little Indian

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