Jesse Malin's debut solo album follows his stint as lead singer in a New York punk band D-Generation, who recorded three albums for major labels but failed to flicker on any kind of critical or commercial radar. "The Fine Art Of Self Destruction" has already been the recipient of a slavering review in Uncut: possibly not coincidentally, that publication's poster boy, Ryan Adams, assists on keyboard, guitar, vocal and production duties.
"The Fine Art Of Self Destruction" requires a degree of familiarisation before its massed glories come flooding out. Over the first few plays you might find yourself, as I did, nodding agreeably at the pleasant melodies, or smiling inwardly at the carefully constructed, sharply observed lyrics. But slowly, and with great determination, it reveals itself. I heard "Brooklyn" - a song so great it's on here twice, in band and presumably non-band versions - whilst browsing round Borders this morning and it already sounds like a deep-rooted classic that I've adored for years, rather than the five days since "The Fine Art Of Self Destruction" hit my doormat. Had Jeff Tweedy been a native New Yorker he might have written songs like this, all battered yearning, the line "It's all blood money in the bank" being the album's most unshakeable image.
There are maybe half a dozen songs that fantastic on the album; six or so songs that sound instantly timeless, which is not to suggest that they're the kind of tiresome retro posturing that derailed juggernauts like Oasis proffer these days. If there's an English equivalent its in Delta's use of traditional tools to build something that sounds both contemporary and classic. At his best, Malin fastens great chunks of melody to a punky alt.country rumble that has antecedents in the likes of Wilco's mighty "Being There" or Paul Westerberg's career-besting "Stereo". Take "Wendy", for example, which seems to draw equally from Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen's homages to the lady of the same name, except Malin carves her with even more immaculate detail ("She liked Tom Waits and the poet's hat/Sixties Kinks and Kerouac" - don't those lines just make you want to buy the album immediately?!) and hitches the whole up to a rollicking, out-of-control freight train of a melody. "Solitaire" is frazzled, ragged balladry of denial, "Almost Grown" picks through the Polaroids of childhood nostalgia without a drop of sentimentality, and "Xmas" is predictably anti-festive, a heroic, heartbreaking thing that charts a relationship melting like the snows of the season.
The one/only potential barrier to your enjoyment of "The Fine Art Of Destruction" is Jesse Malin's voice, which combines Neil Young's whine with Mick Jagger's mewl to create something that could charitably be described as distinctive. I've grown accustomed to it, though, and hopefully you will too, during the dozens of listens that this immaculate, immediate album deserves and demands. Trust the hype, for once: "The Fine Art Of Destruction" is a fully-formed classic.
JESSE MALIN Queen Of The Underworld (One Little Indian)
"Queen Of The Underworld" is the first single to be extracted from Jesse Malin's excellent solo debut "The Fine Art Of Self Destruction", and I'm not sure if it's my imagination but the song appears to sound even more cavernous here than it did in its former home. No doubt it is my imagination, though, as the idea of recording the same song twice must be something of an anathema to Malin's anarchic roots. Nevertheless, this is chunky, punky Americana, pungent and pretty perfect.
This single also adds two new songs to the Malin canon, tracks which might initially seem a little flimsy and underwhelming compared to everything else we already know by the man, but which gradually reveal themselves all to be shimmering things of subtle beauty. "Cigarettes & Violets" is an elegy to damaged love and squandered promises; "Stranger Than Fools" reminds me strongly of Bruce Springsteen's cover of Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl", which isn't a bad comparison to be labouring under. And the fact that these thoughtful, considered songs are 'mere' throwaway b-sides suggests that Malin has even more talent to burn than that debut album displayed.
JESSE MALIN Wendy (One Little Indian)
"Wendy" is the second single to be extracted from Jesse Malin's marvellous debut album "The Fine Art Of Self Destruction". Still evergreen and effervescent six months after I first heard it, think prime Springsteen gorged on the Beats and supercharged with punk ferocity. As with Malin's last single, "Queen Of The Underworld", a clutch of very fine b-sides escort the main attraction. A doleful piano cover of The Clash's "Death Or Glory" gains an extra verse in tribute to Mr Strummer, although it might have been better yet without the strange barking, belching vocal affectation Malin unleashes before the bridge. Graham Parker's sad-eyed tale of lives ripped apart by Hollywood Dreams, "The 3 Martini Lunch", closes proceedings, lending further credence to the theory that, on current form, Malin is incapable of putting a foot wrong.
JESSE MALIN The Heat (One Little Indian)
The Heat sounds decidedly different to Jesse Malins fantastic solo debut, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction. His music has become darker and more elegantly twisted. Id liken the transformation to that effected by Big Star when they warped the precise power pop of #1 Record into the tangled, collapsing Radio City. And can it be a complete coincidence that the covers interior shot of the leather jacketed artist is practically a remake of Bruce Springsteens Darkness On The Edge Of Town sleeve?
Even more so than his debut, which, for me, needed several concentrated spins to get going, The Heat is an album that requires and rewards your attention. Hes rarely as lyrically open and straightforward here as on the autobiographical pieces that constituted the bulk of The Fine Art Of Self Destruction although the raw, if ungrammatical, vulnerability of Since Your In Love and the childhood reminiscences of About You are noteworthy exceptions. Instead these songs speak of turmoil, decay and the ravage and refuge of the road, even, on Gods Lonely People, attempting a Scorsese-like focus on a citys downtrodden and dejected denizens.
The music that accompanies these musings is tougher, more intricate and less obvious than before. On first acquaintance the album seems populated by almost-melodies and near-hooks, but further listens reveal them to be the equal of what has gone before, even if nothing here has the same glorious abandon as Wendy demonstrated. Perhaps this is a function of the albums gestation it was recorded in spare, snatched moments during 11 months of touring, made with his working band, whereas The Fine Art Of Destruction was bashed out in six days, assisted by a star-studded pick-up combo. (Although, having said that, close examination of the booklet notes reveals contributions from Pete Yorn, former Replacement Tommy Stinson, session cellist to the glitterati Jane Scarpantoni and the ubiquitous Ryan Adams.)
The ambition, range and grasp of The Heat are far broader than those of The Fine Art Of Destruction, brilliant album though it remains. Its greatness reveals itself slowly, these songs surreptitiously embedding themselves into your subconscious until they become the background hum of your existence.
JESSE MALIN/WHITE LIGHT MOTORCADE Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff 28 May 2004
White Light Motorcade are perfect fodder for a smoky, sweaty venue such as Clwb Ifor Bach, sheltered protectively from the football hordes laying waste to Cardiff by its dingy backstreet location. Comparisons are as inevitable here as with any other 21st century New York guitar wielders, strengthened by a wardrobe apparently assembled from what The Strokes took back to the thrift store (with the exception of bassist Tommy Salmorin, whose appearance answers the rarely posed question What if Peter Buck had joined The Stooges?) and a sound that fuses the aforementioneds unpolished, angular but tuneful approach with the confident swagger of Modern Life Is Rubbish-era Blur. Given the flurry of activity at the merchandise stand following their set they seemed to make friends here tonight.
Jesse Malin has already done so: at one point during a set that recalled the live work of Bruce Springsteen (a fan, who invited Malin to support him at his Christmas shows) and Harry Chapin in his willingness to talk the audience through the songs, he thanked us for making Cardiff like a home from home for him. He also noted, before a performance of Neil Youngs Helpless dedicated to Tony Blair, that hed first played the song live at Cardiffs equally tiny Barfly.
Touring his second album The Heat some weeks before its release meant that the new songs hadnt yet acquired the patina of familiarity displayed by those performed from his classic debut The Fine Art Of Self Destruction. Interspersing material from the two could have sapped some consistency and continuity from the evening, were it not for the sheer force and conviction of Malins delivery. A punk rock disciple who advocates that punk rock is a state of mind, not a fashion statement (and who hilariously recalled how the jocks used to taunt the punks in his Queens neighbourhood by yelling Devo riffs at them from passing cars), he attacks his marvellous songs with a gleeful, bright-eyed savagery thats a joy to behold, making all possible use of the venues cramped stage, already overflowing with the same musicians who pulled together to make the tough, sinewy sound that powers The Heat. Such is his confidence that he covers, as well as the aforementioned Neil Young tune, The Clashs Death Or Glory in tribute to Joe Strummer and closes on Elvis Costellos Olivers Army as an anti-war protest. The fact that they arent the evenings standouts says more about the consistent quality of his own songwriting than any deficiencies in his performance.
Some minor irritations: its a shock to hear Malins live singing voice, or at least the one he was deploying tonight. After the gloomy, rough-hewn timbre of his studio work, the surprise at being confronted with an Olive Oyl-esque mewl never totally subsides. Although tradition dictates that rowdy, raucous guitar rock must be played in clubs like this, the Ifor Bachs lousy acoustics conspire to drown his words in a tsunami of thrumming guitar noise: for me, its the songs when he performs alone save for keyboard accompaniment from Christine Smith Death Or Glory, rescued b-side Cigarettes & Violets that work best. And it would have been nice to have heard TKO or Xmas as well, albeit greedy with his performance already pushing the 90 minute barrier. Otherwise and my opinion concurs with the findings of friends who saw him on other dates during this heroic 19 show British and Irish tour he rocked mightily.
JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL / THE KILLING FLOOR / ALLAN FOX The Ruby Lounge, Manchester 7 July 2010
I only catch the last two-and-a-half songs of Allan Fox’s set, which, for all I know might also have been the first three. A multi-instrumentalist who also plays with the headliners, solo he offers affable of not exactly earth-shattering songs played on keyboard and acoustic guitar.
The Killing Floor might only be second on the bill in a 350-capacity venue but in their heads they’re rock stars. They take to the tiny stage to the strains of the blues classic after which they’re named, and as they leave several sweaty songs later their singer/bassist presses the front row’s outstretched flesh. They look, and maybe even sound, like The Strokes might without the benefit of trust funds, trading some angular indie cred for a punky Americana that’s a bit like Jesse Malin himself crossed with Television. They are pretty good, all told.
I’d previously seen Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social a week and a half earlier, supporting The Hold Steady at the Academy 2. Then, a combination of a big, enthusiastic crowd and lighting and sound sized to suit cranked up the awesomeonmeter right up. Tonight, divested of some of that shock and awe, they’re merely very good.
The songs, especially those from Malin’s fabulous debut “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction”, are mostly great. If those from his two most recent albums, “Glitter In The Gutter” and “Love It To Life” haven’t quite embedded themselves in my head in the week I’ve owned them, it’s still apparent that songs like “Burning The Bowery” manage to squeeze stadium-sized emotions into this tiny, sweaty club. “Mona Lisa” is played in convoluted celebration of once being joined on stage by Shane MacGowan, whom the song namechecks. He introduces an acoustic “Almost Grown” with a lengthy anecdote about how, as a hormone-ravage 11-year-old prowling 42nd Street in search of sex, he was mugged in slow motion for the 40 Christmas dollars he’d earmarked for the transaction by two gentlemen to whom, wiser and older, he is eternally grateful. One thing happens that almost certainly couldn’t with an Academy 2-sized crowd: during “Solitaire” he implores the audience to sit down on the beer-sloshed floor, whilst singing in our midst. He covers Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum” with an astonishing gusto and closes with a gorgeous version of b-side “Cigarettes & Violets”.
Nevertheless, if lacking the ultimate impact and grandeur of that Hold Steady support slot, Malin’s unshakeable faith in the power of rock ‘n’ roll is amply evident tonight, channelling his love of Kiss and punk into loud, literate Americana. Good for him.
JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL Love It To Life (Side One Dummy)
On his first album with a co-credited band, New Yorker Jesse Malin seems to be aspiring to a kind of shoebox stadium sound, with the ambition and commitment of Bruce Springsteen squeezed through a punk rock aesthetic. You can hear it in, for example, the street gang backing vocals, which are pure Clash.
There are two kinds of songs here: tough, streetwise rockers (“Burning The Bowery”, “All The Way From Moscow”) and, less well represented, bruised ballads such as “The Archer” and “Lonely At Heart”. Whilst Malin’s dedication to his art is hardly in doubt, there’s something ultimately uninspired about these songs, which lay their influences as bare as the cover photo’s clutter of keepsakes. Compared with, for example, his glorious solo debut “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction” or even its difficult but ultimately worthwhile successor “The Heat” there’s nothing compelling here.
The album’s cause is hardly furthered by an atrocious-sounding vinyl pressing. In common with the latest by recent tourmates The Hold Steady, it’s a sonic mess, almost as if it was cut from low bitrate MP3s.
JESSE MALIN Glitter In The Gutter (One Little Indian)
Jesse Malin’s third album practically reeks of being primed and targeted towards a mainstream audience. By the standards of the man’s work it’s almost glossy, the precision-drilled tunes going for broke as if recognising a big shot at the title. It arguably draws upon the heaviest-hitting guest list of any Jesse Malin album: alongside the ever-present Ryan Adams, Josh Homme, Jakob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen feature.
Amidst all this sheen, it’s the ballads that work the best. “Broken Radio” doesn’t exactly need Bruce singing along, but it’s a highlight nevertheless. A sparse piano-and-vocal cover of The Replacements’ “Bastards Of Young” seems like a template for the kind of song Malin was aiming for himself and, with the wistful “Aftermath”, arguably attains. “Happy Ever After (Since You’re In Love 2007)”, a marginally reworded remake of a song from his second album, is the sound of somebody struggling through a painfully protracted healing process. Outside of these, though, one uptempo rocker tends to merge anonymously with another.
For all its musical deficiencies, One Little Indian’s vinyl reissue of “Glitter In The Gutter” is a premium product. Much attention has been paid to its sonics, being direct metal mastered to two 200 gram 45 rpm discs, and the results are agreeable. If it doesn’t attain the level of otherworldliness offered by the label’s similarly specified Björk reissues, it’s still pretty presentable. Again, though, One Little Indian’s detailing has stopped short of amending the packaging to include the revised side splits, and the inner sleeves are simply those of the original issue duplicated twice over. Still, as it’s currently available from Amazon for the low, low price of £5.99 it surely qualifies as the audiophile-ish vinyl bargain of the year.
JESSE MALIN & THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL / SPECIAL NEEDS / DIANE GENTILE The Ruby Lounge, Manchester 22 November 2011
Whenever I see a male/female duo wielding guitars these days I immediately start comparing them to Gilliam Welch, and Diane Gentile and her accompanist are no exception. She’s more urban (in the dictionary definition, rather than the musical genre, sense of the word) than Welch, though. She’s good, if compromised by ultimately unmemorable songwriting, thrown into relief by a cover of The Replacements’ “Skyway”.
Special Needs initially look and sounds like thrift store Strokes, at least until their lyrics appear to reference Tesco and they demonstrate convincing British accents between songs. As their set progresses a Dr. Feelgood undercurrent becomes increasingly prominent, not just in the wired performance of their panda-eyed lead singer but also through a kind of pub rock/new wave rumble to their sound. They even attempt the kind of authentic late 70s tentative, clumsy political commentary required of the genre, before taking yet another left turn into reverb-laden 60s balladry. All a bit confusing, really, but not in any way bad.
“I’m Jesse Malin, this is “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction””. And so it is, as he and backing band The St. Marks Social perform his 2002 debut album and unjustly ignored lost minor classic complete. Faithfully reproducing its sound and sequence, the highlights are those that in a just and fair world you’d know already: the ever-astounding “Wendy”, and “Brooklyn” played twice as the album demands, both in solo and band versions, the latter drawn out to ecstatic heights. The biggest surprise, though, is dropping awesome b-side “Cigarettes And Violets” into the running order, a song that deserves a place on the album (which, in America at least, it was granted). Played with passion, subtle invention and commitment, the performances aren’t carbon copies of the originals, more invigorations of them.
For an encore Malin and band tear through some of their more recent work, predominately from the “Love It To Life” album. They’re, well, alright, I suppose, but also kinda confused and ramshackle, without the clarity of exposition that makes “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction” material so vital, a telling indication of how his songwriting has become defocussed over the last decade. Finally, there’s a great cover of The Clash’s “Death Or Glory”, only slightly hobbled by a well-intentioned if slightly clumsy verse added in tribute to that band’s fallen leader.
The thing about Jesse is that he’s so often more satisfying live when playing support slots than headlining, almost as if it’s the only way his work can reach the size of audience it truly deserves. This, however, is the finest headline show I’ve seen him play yet. At one point Malin reveals that he was only able to afford the five days’ studio time in which the album was recorded because creeping gentrification had reached his apartment block and his slum landlord had offered to buy out his lease. Surely nobody here tonight could argue against the deal.