Album Review: Jesse Malin, ‘New York Before the War’
In case the title of his new album doesn't give it away, singer-songwriter Jesse Malin misses New York as it once was. The question is, who doesn't? In Malin's case, as a native of Flushing, Queens, it makes sense that he feels entitled to plow the well-trodden thematic road of simultaneous romanticizing and lamenting of the Big Apple. But Malin's musical verve is what makes his wry observations about changing landscape pack a punch. Not to mention that he's able to convey genuine adult tension via his portrayals of setting: You don't have to be from New York to relate to the idea that, once the familiarity of your surroundings starts to erode, you can find yourself feeling profoundly adrift and unsure of your sense of direction.
One presumes that, as the one-time singer of stylish glam-punk outfit D Generation, Malin has lived through his share of changes in New York's "scene." But now, 15 years into a career re-invention as a rootsy, folk-leaning singer-songwriter, Malin has accrued his own history to look back on, question, doubt and measure against his present. On his website, Malin describes this album, his seventh, as "a record for fast kids, old pros, drifters, dreamers, socialites and subversives." The truth, though less sensational, is that this record might be better suited for your Everyday Average Janes and Joes. For one of Malin's most endearing qualities is that he's hard to tell apart from the acoustic guitar-toting guy busking on the streetcorner or playing for tips at a local bar -- a down-to-earth demeanor that belies his execution and craftsmanship as a songwriter.
By the time the squalling horns and honky-tonk piano of "Turn Up the Mains" tip Malin's hand that he's a bit influenced by the Rolling Stones (not a bad thing), he's already acquitted himself by coming off as a real person -- a vibe he conveys with admirable effortlessness. "Turn Up the Mains," it should be noted, is the third song on the record, so it doesn't take long for Malin to make himself at home in your speakers. (It also doesn't hurt that the entire album is recorded so that it sounds intimate, but not in the usual sense -- Malin's voice is mixed so that it feels like it's coming through a P.A. just a few feet from your head.)
"There's a world outside if you want it" he coos on "Oh Sheena," one of several plaintive, stripped-down tunes that veer toward but never quite tip over into ballad territory. Ironically, even as he looks inward (and backward), Malin makes us want to head out into that world, too.
For that, New York Before the War provides a most fitting soundtrack, not to mention some well-placed encouragement.