Side projects are a fickle mistress.
For every successful foray from an original project–Tom Petty in the Traveling Wilburys comes to mind–there's three unmitigated disasters like Boxcar Racer. Or, as we've recently seen from the "not amicable" dissolution of Alexisonfire, there's the ever-present danger of a side project creating a rift in the main project.
It's far too early to make any such insinuations about the eventual path of Brian Fallon's new side project, the Horrible Crowes, but several things have already been set to concrete: namely that this is not a Gaslight Anthem B-sides record, and, more importantly, Fallon sounds quite comfortable using a wider range of musical influence than he's tried his hand at before.
From punk to soul, and from funk to folk, one thing is for certain: The Horrible Crowes are willing to take chances. Fallon and collaborator Ian Perkins work masterfully together on Elsie, telling beautiful and heartbreaking stories all along the way.
The album is guided into heartbreaking territory right away with the brief but pointedly morose "Last Rites". A piano-driven reflection of finality, Fallon lets the piano and ever-so-gentle pitter-patter of the snare create the perfect backdrop while singing "Start up the car, bury your memories / call up your lovers, speaking slow and heavy / call up your boyfriends, from out by the ocean / I get my last rites read by thieves" until the piano stops and the snare fades into silence. It's songs like this that really bring out one of Fallon's biggest strengths–he doesn't need to be soaring like it's the chorus of "The '59 Sound". He's just as effective and just as gripping in a variety of vocal styles.
That said, Elsie still does give him ample opportunity to soar.
Fallon wastes no time on "Behold the Hurricane", launching into rousing "whoa-oh-oh"s over a brilliantly simple chord progression where he sounds so completely at home. The clean riffing and taut percussion seem to jibe with Fallon's every change in inflection, and when the chorus sweeps in, Fallon and Perkins change the riffing to match. It's exactly the kind of centerpiece the record needed, and exactly the change-of-pace song the album needed after such somber beginnings.
But don't get too comfortable.
The Horrible Crowes follow up "Behold the Hurricane" with an organ-based track that wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a Parliament record. The bouncy, funk-laden "I Witnessed a Crime" surprises in another way: Fallon's vocals are hushed and near-whispered. The organ and percussion take the reins while Fallon is comfortable in the reserves, slinking over the beat and never imposing; when the organ cuts away for some clean picking, Fallon's voice picks up some spunk and attitude. It's small nuances like that, nuances found all over the record, that really make it memorable. Keeping with that momentum is "Go Tell Everybody", an absolute howler of a track that, for the first time on the album lets Fallon untether and just ride the southern-tinged wave.
Exploding out of the gate exclaiming "I've been known to wear a fine black suit, and moldover tie / I've got miles on my shoes, that your brothers can't buy," Fallon seems to have a sneer and a scowl that motors the track through a rollicking, organ-backed chorus and right into another incensed verse. Not only does the amalgamation of southern rock and funk work, it works well. It sounds completely organic and it gives the record yet another dimension to add to a crowded field of them.
As the album progresses, Fallon and Perkins try their hand at pop-acoustic sampling ("Black Betty & The Moon"), gospel ("Mary Ann"), and minimalist beauty ("I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together"), but it's "Crush" that hits harder than any of the 11 other tracks.
Above gorgeous, low-key, clean progressions that wouldn't be out of place on one of Explosions in the Sky's softer efforts, Fallon sounds positively haunting. There's a very real and very tangible anguish in his voice and it comes out in every painful lyric.
"Pour yourself a drink, I'll sing you a song/ Don't worry about the money honey, I've got a job / Baby I've been right, call me when you drown / I can wait all night, I've spent my whole life a little less up than my downs / I know a secret, everybody tell, who goes to heaven, who goes to hell / And I know one thing sure is true, I've never kept a secret: I've got a crush on you."
Fallon's verbal eloquence is superseded only by the gripping delivery of the song, and with every pickup in intensity the words hold that much more weight. It's never overwrought, it's never contrived, it's genuine emotion and it's absolutely pouring through.
Prior to the album's release, Fallon promised influence from Nick Cave. From the National. Afghan Wings. And it's all there. But what's more important, infinitely more important, is that Fallon's mark is there. His indelible mark is present in all 12 of these songs. His voice and his songwriting ability have such a strong impression, that it's not at all a stretch to think that 15-20 years down the line, bands will be citing Fallon as an influence. Bands will do what they can to sound just like him.
But nobody ever will.