[31 January 2014]
Critical assessment of a b-sides compilation is an inherently dicey endeavor. You’re tasked with evaluating a collection of songs that, for myriad reasons, did not pass muster to be previously released, and have now been tossed together. A disc of misfit tracks that don’t even have the context of a meticulously planned album to support or bolster their virtues, that’s what a b-sides record is, and as such, each track has an uphill battle. At their best, among them Oasis’ The Masterplan and Tom Waits’ Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, they reward longtime fans with a trove of stellar material that baffles one as to how they were overlooked. At their worst, you instantly know why the tracks were initially scrubbed. The Gaslight Anthem’s succinctly titled The B-Sides falls somewhere in the middle, and you’re getting nothing more, though maybe a little less, than what the name promises.
At 11 tracks, it’s a relatively short record, and features but one “new” song from the New Jersey quartet recorded in a studio, the rest a mix of acoustic versions of their own songs and covers. That lone original, “She Loves You”, is killer, though, originally hailing from the deluxe edition of American Slang. It’s searching, heartrending, and pathos-laden without being pathetic or mopey — in short, it taps into all the strongest aspects of a typical Gaslight Anthem ballad. A stomp-and-clap chain gang rhythm, minimal guitar strumming and aching cooing are offset by Brian Fallon’s frayed bellow spouting gutter poetry. It has shades of “We Did It When We Were Young” in its struggle for an ideal in the face of cynicism’s beckoning. Without hedging, it’s easy to declare it the strongest cut of the bunch.
When it comes to their unplugged numbers, what is immediately apparent is how well they work in such a stripped down setting. In a way, their standard youthful nostalgia is oddly amplified in this quieter format, the tunes having the aura of sage-like meditations from a desolate cityscape. Rather than the indignant fire of their electric raging counterparts, these interpretations are intimate, wasted and wounded. “The ’59 Sound” takes on a feeling of Dustbowl desperation and the anthem of disaffection that is “Great Expectations” now seems like the regrets of a man late in life rather than a 20-something, the refrain of “I saw taillights last night / In a dream about my first wife / Everybody leaves so why wouldn’t you?” carrying a more haunted weight. The lo-fi “American Slang” sounds like it was recorded in the belly of a mountain, and “Boxer” features the most drastic reworking, almost unrecognizable from its studio version. With effects that clang and drip like tools banging on machinery in a boiler room, eerie humming, and chugging guitar, it displays a heavy Mule Variations-era Tom Waits influence. Good as these acoustic iterations of Gaslight Anthem originals are, “Boxer” is probably the only one that is genuinely superior to its studio version.
The covers here are also a mixed bag. Their live rendition of Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust” is about as straight-forward a cover as they come, almost mistakable for the original in its sonic frenzy and guttural presentation. About the only obvious difference is Fallon’s more tattered vocals, equally earnest as Eddie Vedder’s in spitting the despair of lines like “And the barrel waits / Trigger shakes/ Aimed right at my head.” Alex Rosamilia also does an apt job mimicking Mike McCready’s guitar squalls, resulting in a near carbon copy. It’s a charming tribute, but as with most covers that merely replicate rather than reinvent, it has little replay value and it does nothing to realign one’s partiality from PJ’s version. The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” is more interesting, keeping the swagger of Mick, Keef and company, but is more cavalier and relaxed than debauched. The tempo and instrumentation are reduced to a slow burning, folk-country number, the type you play on a front porch with some drunken camaraderie as the sun sets before you.
Among the most inspired choices are “Songs for Teenagers” from contemporaries Fake Problems and “Once Upon a Time” by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. What makes them so successful is that they both sound as though they were penned by the Gaslight Anthem, particularly in their backward-looking lyrical content. Tell me the former’s refrain of “It’s a shame all the ways we build ourselves up / Just to let each other down” doesn’t sound like a Fallon musing. And “Once Upon a Time” could be placed nowhere but at the end of the album, Fallon and crew memorializing Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding with a sincerity that belies their actual age.
Still, the obvious result of such uniformity in the tracklist is a lack of variety. The downfall of most b-sides collections is too much diversity spinning out in all directions; here, ironically enough, everything is consolidated as to yield the opposite effect. While the songs are engaging and rewarding, they’re not definitive and it’s difficult not to be disappointed that more obscurities and lost dogs didn’t find a home on this compilation.