aylaid at an airport last week, this humble reviewer, one of those ostrich-like fellows who prefers to pass through life with his head down, found himself examining the suits around him. Some pecked away at blinking laptops, their brows resolutely furrowed. Others chattered away to distant home offices about reports, deadlines, office snafus and, most of all, the shitty airport terminal we were stuck in. The guy next to me had a more specific complaint: “The only thing here is a hotdog stand,” he spat into his cell phone. “So how am I supposed to get drunk?” Which, if you’ll pardon the convolution, brings us squarely to Jesse Malin.
Malin’s sophomore solo effort is a consistent collection of desperate urban narratives. But it’s his knack for squeezing the most out of those narratives that’s the key here. The Heat compares favorably to PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, offering the same NYCentric references (“9-11 baby boom”), gruff, understated guitar work and narrative aptitude. These are Malin’s stories from the city and they don’t disappoint.
But please don’t mistake Malin as a merely provincial talent. The former D Generation front man sings from the gut and, though he may view the world through a distinctly NYC lens, the tales he spins are universal. Beaten-down, colorful, desperate, guilty, skunk-drunk, regretful characters inhabit The Heat.
More than anything, Malin has mastered nuance. He can make anything sound like poetry in the way he tentatively explores lyrics, searching for (and almost always finding) an innovative take on otherwise straightforward lines. Listening to the way he weeps the otherwise redundant “Opening lines / and opening lines” on “Silver Manhattan” will break your heart (even as you’re not sure why). The crux? You will find clichés here, but Malin’s performance amends for them.
Malin’s voice is a beguiling hybrid of vulnerability and jaded despair. If his lyrics, as on “Basement Home”, occasionally insinuate a kitschy country music apathy (“Didn’t go to work at all / Couldn’t even make a call / Skipped payments on my truck”), they’re soon vindicated by follow-ups like “My first wife I couldn’t keep / She left me for the big sleep”. This particular lament goes on to inform us that the widower is also the father of a 12-year old girl who, we discover in the ruthlessly unrhymed final line, “…don’t believe in God”.
Which is a line that maybe most accurately reflects the sweet modesty in Malin’s music. He resembles no one so much as a sad barfly lamenting his losses over a series of pints to whoever might care to listen. From the Keith Richards-esque riff that opens “Mona Lisa” to the fuzzy bass line that erupts in the middle of “Scars of Love” to the haphazard handclaps that bring “New World Order” to a halt, Malin’s greatest loyalty is to his narratives. What he reveals in those tales are hard-won nuggets of street wisdom. “If you work your life away” Malin sings, “You’ll get your picture in a frame / And you’ll make your big departure, baby / When you die”.
Obviously, this is a guy who’s passed through a few airport terminals.
Reviewed by: R. S. Ross
Reviewed on: 2004-07-08