[29 April 2010]
Over the course of a solo career that has now spanned nearly a decade, singer/songwriter Jesse Malin has honed his own unique brand of working class rock ‘n’ roll. A blend of New York punk and Springsteen-esque Americana, Malin has always had a penchant for simple songs with anthemic guitars and woeful tales of Johnny, Joanie, and the kids from the old neighborhood. Things are no different on Love It to Life, Malin’s fourth original studio LP and the most consistent and fully realized collection of songs in his impressive discography.
Love It to Life is Malin’s most accessible album to date and, in this case, that’s a great thing. Filled with big, hooky choruses with sugary melodies and punky, power-chord-laden verses laced with doo-wop-esque harmonies, Love It to Life is infectious from start to finish. Malin’s main attributes—earnest lyrics, distinctly quivering voice, and rough-around-the-edges compositions—are still present in full force, and they are still what make him better at his craft than most of his peers (take notice Jakob Dylan). Love It to Life is the most polished effort in Malin’s oeuvre, with less distortion on the guitars, less pounding on the drums, and more elegant mixing than its predecessors. While these characteristics may increase the comparisons between Malin and Ryan Adams, they may also turn off some of Malin’s fans from his days fronting underground hard rock band D Generation. That would be sad, indeed, as Love It to Life shows Malin on top of his songwriting craft and should serve as his breakthrough mainstream album.
There isn’t a dud or wasted moment on the succinct, 10-song Love It to Life. “Burning the Bowery”, the album’s first single, is Malin at his most anthemic, with soaring, raggedy guitars, call-and-response choruses, and lyrics that recount the blood, sweat, and tears shed in New York’s lower Manhattan blue blood neighborhoods. Malin shows his power pop chops on “All the Way from Moscow”, featuring a “wee-ooo-wee” sing-along bit that will rattle through your head for days. Malin proves he is still one of the best rock balladeers on “The Archer”, a wistful, acoustic-guitar strumming tale with poignant lyrics about lost love: “Always been a mystery / I often wonder if you miss / It was a long time ago when I let that arrow go / And baby, unconditional, in your body and your soul”. Springsteen album rock blissfully oozes from “St. Marks Sunset”, anchored by a sizzling lead guitar line that would make Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt holler with approval. “Disco Ghetto”, with its ‘70s Television-esque lead guitar, and “Burn the Bridge”, featuring monster power chords and drums reminiscent of the music of Joan Jett (who shares Malin’s love of glam fashion), show Malin hasn’t lost his noisy punk chops.
Malin hasn’t broken any new musical ground with Love It to Life. Instead, he’s simply perfected the solid rock ‘n’ roll that he’s been championing for the last decade. In doing so, the New York singer/songwriter has created—just like his labelmates Gaslight Anthem did two years ago—the perfect summer rock record for 2010, filled with big, bright, shimmering songs that you’ll be humming in your sleep and that sound great with the top down. As the album’s title suggests, Love It to Life is filled with stories about love and struggle and heartache and the other stuff that fills in the cracks of everyday life. It won’t move any buildings or change the state of music, but it will surely connect with you no matter who you are or where you come from—and that’s a triumph that Johnnie, Joanie, and even Springsteen would certainly admire.