The Gaslight Anthem -- Sink or Swim

While Sink or Swim, the Gaslight Anthem's 2007 debut, is undeniably, one of the better records to emerge out of the punk scene over the past few years, it may be the band's weakest release. Of course, this is saying a whole lot. After all, both their follow-up EP, SeƱor and the Queen, and their sophomore album, The '59 Sound, are phenomenal (and, especially in the case of the latter, genre-expanding) releases. So, really, listening to Sink or Swim after having heard the band's most recent output may not be the best approach to reviewing the disk. I mean, you can't help but be a bit biased.

At any rate, Sink or Swim is certainly not your run-of-the-mill debut effort. The Gaslight Anthem are one of the tightest outfits on the circuit today, consistently polished and capable of the sort of unified sound most good bands require several albums to achieve. And you can hear it on this first record. There really isn't a lousy track on the disk.

All the hallmarks of the Gaslight Anthem's sound are present on Sink or Swim, though perhaps not in as breathtakingly mature a manner as on The '59 Sound: Brian Fallon's soulful Bruce Springsteen-meets-Tom Waits rasp, punk-infused roots rock riffs, and immensely catchy sing-along choruses. Unlike The '59 Sound, however, Sink or Swim does not offer quite as many stand-out singles, which makes for a strikingly balanced listening experience. The band's performance, with the significant exception of "I'da Called You Woody, Joe," is consistently very good on the record, but most tracks fall just shy of great. In other words, Sink or Swim is an excellent album that really needs to be played start-to-finish in order to be properly appreciated because there's not as many mix tape-ready tracks to pull from the disk.


Track 1. "Boomboxes and Dictionaries." A driving rhythm serves up one of the album's catchier choruses like a Jersey Shore wave breaking just in time to deliver a surfer to his or her perfect crest.

Track 2. " I Coul'da Been A Contender." Despite the dubious placement of the apostrophe in the song's title, this track is close to flawless.

Track 5. "1930." One of the most representative of the album's tracks, "1930" is the perfect introduction to the Gaslight Anthem's nascent soul punk sound.

Track 8. "I'da Called You Woody, Joe." The band's heartfelt dirge for Joe Strummer captures the shock Fallon felt upon learning of of the Clash frontman's untimely heart attack and transforms it into a sublime punk rock threnody.

Track 9. "Angry Johnny and the Radio." Try not to sing along with this one. Seriously. It's like eating one potato chip. You just can't resist.

Track 12. "Red At Night." A clear nod to Billy Bragg's "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," "Red At Night" is a beautiful acoustic performance as electrifying as the most intense of plugged-in sets.

Incidentally, I caught the Gaslight Anthem's show in Asbury Park last night. The third of three "At Home for the Holidays" shows put on by the Bouncing Souls, the concert featured the legendary pogo punks as headliners and the Gaslight Anthem as one of three opening bands. The show was originally scheduled for the Stone Pony but a last minute venue change resulted in the rather unfortunate decision to hold the concert in the Grand Arcade, a glass-enclosed section of the Asbury Park boardwalk with less than ideal acoustic properties. In addition to the sound-absorbing Christmas tree to the right of the stage, the high, cathedral-esque ceilings and disproportionately wide proportions of the hall swallowed quite a bit of the music and what managed to escape often got trapped in the odd nooks and crannies of the beachside boutiques lining the concourse. With the exception of one Bad Religion concert in Montreal's Jarry Park, I have never attended a punk show held in such an overlarge space and, to be honest, the music suffered.

In addition to the Bouncing Souls and the Gaslight Anthem, with whose music I am rather well acquainted, the bill included two other Jersey bands, Let Me Run and Gimme Drugs, neither of which really struck me as especially good. Let Me Run has a rather melodic brand of hardcore-leaning punk and gave a pretty solid performance, though the lead singer seemed a bit nervous at times. Gimme Drugs, as their rather lame name suggests, are one of those bands that are not particularly inventive. Armed with lyrics occasionally delivered in an obnoxious spoken word style and jokes ("Hello, we're the Gaslight Anthem. Heh, heh, heh.") that fell flat, Gimme Drugs did not engage the audience much.

The Gaslight Anthem were great, though. You can tell the band is about to get huge. I mean, the crowd was swarming with Brian Fallon lookalikes. The original Fallon, of course, is a natural performer, regularly engaging the audience in banter and sing-alongs. Clearly very comfortable on stage, the Gaslight Anthem displayed remarkable chemistry, exchanging playfully knowing glances and orchestrating deceptively casual musical improvisations that really electrified the audience.

Playing an extremely tight set, the Gaslight Anthem leaned heavily on The '59 Sound, though they played a fair amount of songs from both their previous records. Watching the band, I was pretty certain I was watching The Next Big Thing.

The Bouncing Souls, predictably, performed an energetic set of pogo-punk tracks that drove the circle pit into a frenzy. Initially dressed in matching red holiday jumpers, the band came across as extremely fan friendly, often holding the mike to the throbbing mass of kids dying to sing along with this most sing-alongable of bands. With such novelties as a tongue-in-cheek (though quite good) acoustic cover of the Misfits' "Hybrid Moments" thrown in to pace what would otherwise have been a blistering set of pop-punk tunes, the Souls were perfectly tuned to their audience. Mixing newer tracks (including debuting an unreleased song) with selections from the band's first two decades of recording, the Bouncing Souls gave a pleasantly balanced set, being certain to cater to both newer and older fans.

While I did experience a bit of disappointment with the venue and some chagrin at the programmer's strange tendency to play AC/DC CDs during set changes, the show was one of the better ones I've seen lately and, just maybe, I can say I witnessed the Gaslight Anthem as they were getting ready to rocket to the big time. The next time I see the band, I doubt very much the tickets will be so cheap or the venue so small. They're that good.


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