Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Album Review: Painkillers by Brian Fallon (by Emma Prew)

Brian Fallon is always going to be best known for being the singer (and guitarist) of New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem. With such a distinct and recognisable voice, it’s easy to suggest that everything else he does also sounds like The Gaslight Anthem (I think he’s at least just about escaped the comparisons to Bruce Springsteen now though… maybe). So, like many others, I was sceptical about how much I would like his debut solo album. I love[d] The Gaslight Anthem but I didn’t want Brian’s solo material to sound exactly the same. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

Painkillers was produced in Nashville by Butch Walker, known for his work with the likes of Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Taylor Swift and more recently Frank Turner’s Positive Songs For Negative People. In short Painkillers a very much Americana-based singer songwriter affair featuring pedal steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano and organ, alongside the standard guitar, bass and drums. In parts, of course, it does sound like The Gaslight Anthem but it also nods towards Tom Petty and Ryan Adams, much more so than Bruce Springsteen.

The album starts with a bang, or rather the crashing of drums and jangling of guitars, with a song called A Wonderful Life. The song was released as a single long before the album itself and I really did love it from listen. It’s a catchy track and a great album opener, but most of at it has a very positive feel. It sets the tone for much of the album which unlike The Gaslight Anthem’s last album, Get Hurt, is very much feel-good.

The next three tracks keep the positive vibes flowing and are all equally as good. The title track, Painkillers, is not as you might imagine about medicinal painkillers but instead it’s a good ol’ love song. The chorus reflect this; And we want love like it was a drug, All we wanted was a little relief, And every heart I held in between, They were painkillers to me.’ Painkillers is followed by Among Other Foolish Things which is one of my favourites, if only for the ridiculously upbeat and bouncy chorus; ‘And they say such foolish things, like "Love, love, love, love is all you need”’. The fourth track, Smoke, is the perfect song for clapping and foot stomping – something I imagine I’ll be doing come the 8th of April when Colin and I see Brian Fallon on his UK tour.

Steve McQueen, the fifth track on Painkillers, is probably my least favourite song on the album. It’s a much slower song focusing on Brian’s voice and the lyrics (most of which are about Steve McQueen and his racing horses). I just didn’t connect with it like the previous songs, although the finger-picked acoustic guitar is nice. Luckily the album livens up again with Nobody Wins, another bright track complete with singalong hallelujahs in the chorus – although thankfully not in an overly religious-sounding way. Rosemary, the next song, is probably the most Gaslight-like song – and fairly early Gaslight at that – but with added (I think) glockenspiel. Can you imagine The Gaslight Anthem up on stage with a glockenspiel player?

Red Lights is another of my favourite tracks – alright, alright, most of them are my favourites – and a great one to nod your head or tap your foot along to. I love the chorus; So yes I will take those, Whatever else they give me, If it stops the nightmares, It probably won’t kill me, And if I slow it down I’ll end up on one of my accusers' knives, So I only stop to tell her that I love her at the red lights’. It also has a lovely bit of pedal steel guitar at end – proper country music style! Long Drives is another of the slower tracks on Painkillers with more pedal steel guitar and a heartfelt chorus; ‘But you said, “I’m alright, Baby, I don’t mind, I’ll get on just fine, On them long, long drives”’. Honey Magnolia continues the slow pace, as the album draws to a close, this time with a more piano-heavy sound. It’s pleasant enough but it feels like Painkillers needs one final kick by this point.

Fortunately the penultimate track, Mojo Hand, is more upbeat and even has a bit more of a raw sound than the preceding songs, particularly in Brian’s vocals. It’s also one of the most americana-sounding songs on the album, and probably most unlike Brian’s previous musical endeavours. It’s the kind of song that as soon as I heard it I thought ‘My dad will like this one.’ – and he does! He says it reminds him of Tom Petty and the Travelling Wilburys (folk/country super group that included Tom Petty) in particular. It is definitely one of the standout tracks on the album. The final song, Open All Night, is a simple one, fairly stripped back with mostly acoustic guitar aside from the melodic albeit short guitar solo in the middle. I feel like the ordering to Painkillers has been particularly well thought out – which I find is not always the case with albums – and the closing track on Painkillers is certainly a perfect end to what really is a very good album.

I read a comment somewhere that said something along the lines of; On The Gaslight Anthem’s last album, Get Hurt, Brian was clearly a rather unhappy man (the clue is in the title) but with Painkillers it sounds like he’s found a way to be happy again. I don’t want to make a habit of copying what other people say, especially when I can’t actually remember who said it, but I think that sums it up for me too.

I recommend buying the album from Banquet Records (or, y’know, you can stream it on Spotify or whatever) here: http://www.banquetrecords.com/painkillers