When you get a member of the Gaslight Anthem on the phone at a record store in their native New Jersey, one question immediately comes to mind: Which of the Boss’ albums are you picking up?
“Nope, no Springsteen,” guitarist Alex Rosamilia said flatly, talking last month when the band had a rare week off.
For good reason, the Gaslight Anthem has been held up as torchbearers of Springsteen & the E Street Band’s burning, blue-collar rock sound. The quartet’s career-making sophomore album, “The ‘59 Sound” - a 2008 year-end favorite for many music critics and No. 1 with eMusic.com subscribers - is rife with anthemic choruses, top-down-muscle-car guitar riffs and songs with characters named Mary and Bobby Jean. The song “High Lonesome” even lifts lyrics straight from Bruce’s “I’m on Fire” to great effect.
The Gaslight Anthem is really not all about the Boss, though, insisted Rosamilia. He backed up that claim, too, as he listed the albums he’d just acquired from Vintage Vinyl near the band’s hometown of New Brunswick: Some ABBA, early Fleetwood Mac and one Godflesh record.
New Brunswick is “gray, gloomy and industrial,” Rosamilia said, but it’s also home to a big college-student population (from Rutgers University) and not 100 percent Springsteen territory.
“I honestly didn’t really start listening to him until I was in this band,” Rosamilia said. Instead, he points the finger to singer/guitarist Brian Fallon. “He’s really integral to Brian as an influence, but not so much the rest of us. Alex (Levine, bassist) was probably most influenced by the Clash, and Ben (Horowitz, drummer) totally grew up in the independent/hard-core punk scene. And then my biggest influences were bands like the Smiths and the Cure.”
Before “‘59 Sound,” the band definitely had more of a punk sound, which earned them a slot on the Warped Tour and other punk-centric gigs. Recently the Anthem toured with Chicago’s popular sociopolitical punk band Rise Against, testing the waters for how the Boss-like music on “‘59 Sound” would go over in front of a crowd of Rancid- and NOFX-loving youths.
“Actually, the punks like their Springsteen,” Rosamilia said. “I was surprised by it myself, but I suppose there’s sort of a blue-collar, unpretentious connection to him.”
The band didn’t go into the making of “‘59 Sound” expecting to make such an E Street-sounding record, Rosamilia said. “We wanted to do something that we were really proud of, something that harked back to soul music and stuff from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.”
There’s definitely more nostalgia on “‘59 Sound” than just the Springsteen elements. The disc opens and closes with a hissing needle-on-vinyl sound - as if it, too, came out of a vintage record store. And the lyrics are loaded with imagery that could have been on albums owned by the band members’ parents, including the lamenting memories in the urgent rocker “Great Expectations” (“It’s funny how the night moves/Humming a song from 1962”) and the references to vintage cars in such songs as “Old White Lincoln.”
“I did actually own a Monte Carlo Super Sport at one point, a muscle car,” Rosamilia said. “So sure, why not - we’ll take that stereotype about us.”
He said the band members are also fine living with the image that they’re total Springsteen acolytes - at least for now. They were handpicked by the Boss to open for him this summer at a show in London’s Hyde Park. Springsteen reportedly lavished praise on Fallon when the two had their first encounter a couple months ago.
“It’s all great,” Rosamilia said, “but we also don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Thinking on it, he added, “It’s already kind of happened, though. I don’t think I’ve done an interview since the record came out where that name isn’t mentioned. Our next record should hopefully change all that, though. Brian is even making it a point to stay away from the Springsteen thing.”
Here’s hoping they don’t get too far away from it. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
MORE SPRINGSTEEN SOUNDALIKES
The Gaslight Anthem might be the most overt, but here are some other acts whose members have obviously heard a Springsteen album or two:
THE HOLD STEADY: The New York-based, Twin Cities-reared quintet made it cool for indie-rock bands to bring back piano, big choruses and songs about hanging out in bars. Last year’s CD “Stay Positive” even had horns on it. Springsteen himself asked the group to cover “Atlantic City” on the new benefit album, “War Child: Heroes.” Key track: “Stuck Between Stations.”
MARAH: These Philly rockers were originally signed and produced by Nashville’s biggest Springsteen fan, Steve Earle, and they’re great at incorporating the doo-wop and Phil Spector sounds that influenced the Boss on top of their desperate, workingman lyricism. Key track: “Santos de Madera.”
THE KILLERS: For one record only, 2006’s “Sam’s Town,” the Las Vegas quartet tried on Bruce’s blue collar. That they’ve gone back to playing anthemic dance-rock tells you what most critics and fans thought of the band’s short-lived stay in Asbury Park. Key track: “When You Were Young.”
THE ARCADE FIRE: This nine-member Canadian band clearly owns more Bowie than Boss, but amid its arty and wonderfully archaic orchestral sounds, frontman Win Butler’s evocative, religion-tinged lyrics and urgent vocals often fall squarely between “Nebraska” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Key track: “Antichrist Television Blues.”