What makes for a good E Street rip-off band? When the 21st century began, copping moves from the Boss suddenly became critically acceptable, as bands like the Hold Steady, Marah and the Gaslight Anthem garnered praise and some mainstream exposure. That never happened for Ike Reilly, and I’m not sure why. He might just be stealing the wrong stuff. The aforementioned groups mimic the adrenal, fist-pumping sounds of Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A, while Reilly tends towards the looser, more playful early stuff like Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Before Springsteen decided to save your soul with rock and roll, he had a loveable persona as a charming, boozy beach-bum poet, a jazzier, more eclectic sound and a propensity for tall tales. That’s pretty much the vein that Reilly’s been mining for eight albums and counting, with little to show for it besides a small cult following and a bunch of really good songs. But hey, what the hell… Springsteen’s early stuff didn’t sell either at the time, and those albums were terrific too.
Hard Luck Stories, Reilly’s newest record, opens with “Morning Glory”, a loose, shaggy pop tune driven by a shuffling backbeat, colored by jammy keyboard flourishes and brief harmonica sighs. It’s not a love song, it’s a sex song, or more specifically a lack-of-sex song. The narrator is sleeping on the floor, trying to scheme his way into the bed by morning. The song is clever, fun, and a little bit sleazy. It’s a pleasant way to start an album that for all its humor and musical jubilation is mostly, true to its title, a bunch of hard luck stories.
“Lights Out, Anything Goes” is both the album’s most infectious tune and its most devastating tale, an obtruse story of a hapless father watching his relationship with his son disintigrate for reasons neither he nor the listener quite understand. “I had a boy / I gave him my name / he gave it back when he moved away,” he sings. The story is tough to parse. A broken circuit shuts the power in their house, the kid becomes a Jesus freak, and at some point there’s a dead body somehow involved. But the track is joyous and propulsive, driven by handclaps, a buzzing synth and an ominously stalking Marc Ribot-style guitar line. That’s Reilly’s trademark dissonance. Rapture and resignation, ecstasy and self-destruction all collide. The baffling nature of the lyrics works perfectly. The song’s narrator can’t quite figure out where everything went wrong, and neither can we. Like him, and maybe like Reilly, we’re “always mixing up the saviors and the fakers.”
Hard Luck Stories isn’t a masterpiece. There are almost as many misses as hits. But it’s a very strong piece of work, filled with good yarns and catchy tunes. He sounds like a slacker, but there’s a hidden ambition in Reilly’s bohemian bar-room poetry. He’s trying to wrap his arms around the whole damn thing: hope, anger, love, death, dissolution, sex; mundanity and transcendence, dreams and defeat. Hard Luck Stories will be dismissed by most as dad-rock, and I can’t really defend it against that charge. Reilly’s most recent influences are older than I am, and I’m closer to 30 than 20. But Christ, who cares? It all sounds really good. The songs are catchy as hell, and the lyrics are dark and funny, big-hearted and well observed, sad and sweet. That ought to be enough.
In “The Ballad of Jack and Haley”, an amiable, sunny melody obscures a touching and devastating story of a man passionately devoted to two things: his daughter and the high-grade marijuana plantation he’s cultivating in his basement. Jack’s a single dad, getting by and getting high until he gets busted and sent upstate and Haley’s shipped off to live with her aunt. In his letters, Jack writes, “don’t waste your money on ditch-weed, honey / I’ll be out before you know / and I’ll plant another indoor garden for you / and we’ll watch it grow.” Jack is the iconic Ike Reilly character: full of hopes and schemes and love; alive, awake and longing — and doomed to make the same mistakes twice.