Full disclosure, until I wrote a news story announcing the release of Love It To Life, I had never heard of Jesse Malin. Thorough research since has revealed to me a singer who can wear a different hat for each decade, never seeming content to blend in but never really getting that far out of his comfort zone either. But like so many artists before him who’s relevance has faded with the income (Malin actually owns a few businesses in the Bowery and is probably doing quite well, but Im thinking of Santana here mostly), Malin has enlisted both contemporaries and protégés to help him record an album that many are calling the best of his career. Well, Im new to his career, but I think this might be hyperbole or just a sign that Malins critics are aging with him.
In listening to all the songs that Lala had to offer of both D Generation and Heart Attack, and liking just about everything, it is remarkable how different each project stands from each other. Heart Attack sound like authentic hardcore a la Black Flag (I am sure there are some scary gentlemen out there have an opinion of how punk they are), while D Generation seems to fill the gap between The Replacements and The Gaslight Anthem perfectly. Anything you read about Malin screams about a man who knows the right things to say: Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, and The Hold Steady. He wants you to know he had punk roots but that he also has sophisticated taste of music that was punk in a past life.
The other thing to know before diving into Love It To Life (and apparently before reading Love It To Life reviews) is that this album was recorded with a lineup that changed daily, basically consisting of who was around the Bowery. These included the good (The Gaslight Anthem main-man Brian Fallon), the bad (former teen sensation Mandy Moore), and the ugly (part-time cheeseball, part-time reputable songwriter Ryan Adams). Along with a full backing band, this is what he is calling The St. Marks Social. Particularly significant are Adams, a contemporary, friend and collaborator of Malin since the early 90s and Fallon, who shows obvious influence from Malin in his own work. Ironically, it is the work of these two artists that seems to be informing Malin now, to mixed results.
Malin has crafted rock songs for decades, but working with Fallon brushes throughout the rockers on Love It To Life. All The Way From Moscow burns with the fever of a younger man, with a shout-along chorus and Hold Steady-ish woo-woo backing vocals. St. Marks Sunset also packs the same great forward momentum, and while not quite the same barnburner, it moves along without feeling forced or worn, though similar songs have been written since Malin was in Heart Attack. Unfortunately, the other tracks from what Ill call the Fallon School fall flat. Disco Ghetto is a complete “what the fuck” moment, and while Im sure his baby appreciates the rocking she gets at the disco ghetto, the rest of us are all of suddenly less curious about this Bowery neighborhood. Burn The Bridge is less of failure, but seems an exercise in proving that Bruce Springsteen can go Mellancamp easier than you think. Finally, theres Black Boombox, which I am seriously listening to right now somewhat loudly and embarrassed at the thought of someone else hearing.
The Adams school also offers a rocking piece but mostly consists of the albums mellower tunes. These never get any strong as the albums finer moments (Moscow,St.Marks) but also never really get that bad. Paradigm for the career of Adams? You be the judge, but The Archer is somewhat of a grower, but doesnt pack the immediacy of Malins early, country-influenced solo work. But album closer Lonely At Heart shows Malin to be a lyrical crackhead in the opening line, apparently willing to suck a strangers dick for a rhyme, sensical or not. Once upon/A broken blonde/A lexicon got exiled out of Babylon. Gold Malin, absolute gold.
Ultimately, the album can be summed up by the tune Revelations: after a solid couple minutes of forced rhymes and cheesy instrumentation that recalls contemporary Christian church, you get a badass bridge/final verse and realize that somehow, the melody kind of grew on you. The drumming in the final verse is one of the only times after many listens that I ever even thought about The St. Marks Social as a band, probably because Malins voice is recorded so far in the front that it is all anyone can pay attention to. If he had more to say, better melodies to sing or the taste-level to know when he was blowing it, it would be the formula for career resurgence. As is, Love It To Life has enough good to keep him from hiding out in the Bowery for the rest of his days. And hey, at least Rob Thomas wasnt living in the Bowery last year, right?