Somehow, within the whirlwind of signing to major label Mercury Records, and half of their lineup performing with side project the Horrible Crowes, the Gaslight Anthem managed to record a live session for iTunes. Like everything the band has laid to tape in their career thus far, it features plenty of nods to the past, while seeming unmistakably modern at same time.
The session kicks off with a cover of the Who's classic "Baba O'Riley." This isn't the first time the group has played the song, first performing it at a Who tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in early 2010, and continuing to break it out occasionally at live shows since then, but it's nice to have a high-quality copy. It's impressive that the group has managed to recreate the tune's intricate keyboard parts with their simple two-guitar setup. While it might have been interesting to see the group dig a little deeper into the Who's catalog, the song has an anthemic quality that fits the Gaslight Anthem like a glove, and is a fine way to kick off the proceedings.
Also included is a fairly straightforward take on Tom Petty's "Refugee." The group has covered Petty's "American Girl" in the past, and I would have liked to see that make the cut, but "Refugee" is a solid cut nonetheless, and features some of the strongest backing vocals we've heard from the two Alexs thus far. A cover of Pearl Jam's "State of Love and Trust" also makes an appearance. While it might seem a bit out of left field, grunge influences have reared their head in Gaslight's music before, most notably on American Slang's "Old Haunts." The band also offers their take on the Animals' version of the classic folk song "House of the Rising Sun." The Tom Waits influence apparent in Fallon's side project the Horrible Crowes seeps through here; his vocals have never sounded so gravelly.
It's not all covers, however. The group offer new takes on their own material, with mixed results. The new version of "Boxer" is interesting, but the U2-esque echo effects on the guitars don't always match up with the vocal melody, and it lacks the punch (no pun intended) of the original. "The Navesink Banks" fairs much better. It isn't altered as heavily as "Boxer," but the changes they did make are much more effective. The full band coming in towards the tail-end of the song is a revelation, and is almost enough to make one wish they had recorded it that way originally. How epic of a close to side one of Sink Or Swim would that have been?
The one new (kind of) song present on the iTunes Session EP, "Our Father's Sons" was originally demoed in the '59 Sound era. While I can't imagine it would have fit in on that album (I honestly wouldn't want a single thing about that record to change), it is a fine song in its own right. With an eerie guitar line, and some lyrics lifted straight from the Jeffersons theme song, it sounds like nothing else in the band's catalog.
It's worth mentioning how great the iTunes Session EP actually sounds. It's a testament to how tight the band really is as a unit that they sound every bit as together as they do on any of their studio albums. If I didn't know any better. I could totally buy this being a studio recording.
With a diverse cross-section of cover songs, a mostly unknown gem from a few years back, and some interesting new takes on some old favorites, there is enough great material on the iTunes Session EP to justify a listen from even casual fans of the band. It would have been easy to go in and just record a few live versions of the "hits" and call it good, but it really seems that the Gaslight Anthem put a great deal of thought and care into this session. If you're a fan of the band at all, the iTunes Session EP will warrant repeated listens.