On March 31, Jesse Malin will end his longest gap between solo efforts with the release of New York Before the War (One Little Indian), his first studio album since 2010’s Love It to Life. Medleyville staffers George Henn and Chris M. Junior break down the latest from Malin, who in his current bio says the goal with Before the War was “to make a record that encompassed everything I’ve been through since I started playing hardcore when I was 12 or 13.”
George Henn: New York Before the War marks a menacing return for the New York singer-songwriter, and not just due to that foreboding title. While as with anyone, it’s unclear how much of the lyrical content is autobiographical, the disc is full of what sound like bleak confessionals (sample lyric: “I’m a broken artist and it really didn’t go as planned”). Even the album’s opener, the piano ballad “The Dreamers,” sets an unusually dark tone for Malin, whose stock in trade since his ’90s band D Generation dissolved has been an energetic, sometimes punk-tinged brand of roots rock.
Chris M. Junior: Malin tends to wear his influences on his sleeve as well as his heart, so it would not be out of line to say the lyrical core of each song is autobiographical. And punk-tinged roots rock sums up the sound and approach to his solo career just right. Malin himself describes “Addicted,” the second song on New York Before the War, as “The Ramones meet Paul Simon” — and as good as it is, the tune doesn’t really sound too much like either one of those artists. That says a lot about Malin’s filtering process, as well as his songwriting skills and his identity. No wonder this was released as the first single; it’s very representative of the album.
Alejandro Escovedo contributes backing vocals to the stomping “Turn Up the Mains,” and listening to it got me thinking: Escovedo is a punk/roots-rock guy who really hit his stride well into his solo career — after he hit his 50s. Malin, who is cut from a similar cloth, is only 47 and seems poised to go on a similar run.
Henn: That’s funny: Paul Simon, an unlikely influence for Malin to name-check, actually came to mind for me when I heard a different cut, the folky jangle of “The Year That I Was Born.” Elsewhere, there’s a definite ’70s Rolling Stones vibe on the rollicking “Turn Up the Mains,” which is a real highlight thanks to Malin’s urgent vocals and some slinky saxophone that would make the late Bobby Keys proud, while “Deathstar” proves to be a commendable stab at taut glam-pop.
If this makes it seem as if Malin is all over the map on this disc, he pretty much is — but that’s not a bad thing. Maybe it’s because this one stacks up so differently from his last album — the excellent Love It to Life, which was recorded with his then-backing band billed as the St. Marks Social and was all about melding hooks with the most in-your-face guitars he has employed since the D Gen days — but I particularly enjoy how this set of tunes means he is harder to label or pin down. I’m not ready to proclaim this Malin’s best album, but it’s probably his most varied.
Junior: Malin does cover a lot of ground; this is a single album with the musical scope and diversity of a double album — it kinda reminds me of Paul Westerberg’s 14 Songs in that way. Yet nothing on New York Before the War sticks out like a sore thumb, and credit for that goes to the consistent, uncluttered production of Malin, Derek Cruz and Don DiLego, and the fact that only three of the 13 songs exceed four minutes.
Also, the notable guests do a good job blending in and serving the songs. Former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer appears on “Freeway,” and his fiery 15-second solo right after the bridge paints a picture of Malin’s protagonist — who “drove all night for the last temptation” — speeding along in a muscle car, weaving through traffic to fulfill that desire.
Henn: Kramer’s is far from the only notable cameo here, as the disc also features appearances by The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and ex-R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who contributes his signature jangle to “I Would Do It for You.” And that is fitting, as if anyone is used to filling out a decent guest list, it’s Malin, who owns or co-owns New York nightspots The Bowery Electric and Niagara.
In listening to New York Before the War, it’s hard for me to separate Malin the musician from Malin the club impresario; maybe he isn’t able to separate them either, as evidenced by the track “Bent Up” and its line about being “all f**ked up on rock ’n’ roll.” Hopefully such sentiment is not a sign that Malin is growing weary of his chosen trade, and this rock ’n’ roll lifer will continue releasing this type of endearingly honest material.
Junior: Until you mentioned it, I had not considered the possible deeper meaning to that lyric in “Bent Up.” Coincidentally, Malin wraps up this album with “Bar Life,” a somber song anchored by subtle piano that includes a line about “singing those cowboy tunes.” Could that be a hint at his next recording project? Waiting another five years would be a long time before finding out.