Record stores are a bit anachronistic in 2019. Music went digital years ago and now we get it through anything from phones to refrigerators. I have a few Amazon Echos set up in my house so I no longer even need to press buttons, I can just ask out loud for the little electronic spy to play something. And yet I found myself in a record store on the outskirts of Philadelphia over the weekend, along with maybe 50 other people, to spend $20 on a new record and hear hear Jesse Malin play a few songs.
It was hard to not reflect on the situation as I stood in the back of Main Street Music, and flipped through the stacks of vinyl waiting for the show. On one wall was a prominent poster of the cover of the Replacements classic ‘Pleased to Meet Me’. The album was originally released in 1987, but here it was up on the wall 32 years later. On another wall was a signed poster advertising ‘14 Songs’ – the first solo release by the Replacements lead singer Paul Westerberg. I bought that album on tape a few weeks after it came out in 1993, the year I graduated from high school. To my right was a machine that let you listen to a few new releases. Among the ones available was ‘Hotel Last Resort’, the latest from the Violent Femmes, the great band from Wisconsin who formed in 1980.
Everywhere you look in record stores nowadays you see the past. Even the act of buying a record nowadays is in defiance of the modern world. Records are big, clunky, expensive, and pretty easy to ruin. An MP3 doesn’t melt if you leave it in a hot car for a few minutes. You can’t scratch a digital stream. The only way YouTube skips is if you have a lousy internet connection. There’s nothing convenient about vinyl or record stores in general.
Like the artists on the posters and used records around the store, Malin has been doing this for a while. He came up in the punk and hardcore scenes in New York City. He’s been in a couple of bands, Heart Attack and D Generation, and in 2002 shifted to a new chapter as a solo artist with the release of the classic ‘The Fine Art of Self Destruction’. He’s released a bunch of albums since then to various levels of success, and has never really stopped touring and playing shows. He’s the kind of guy that might not be a household name, but all the musicians you love know him.
So here we all were, crammed into a record store on a hot Saturday afternoon. The air conditioning was on but not so you would notice. The shop door was braced open so there would be some bit of a breeze, and so passers-by could hear the music once it started and maybe wander in to see what was going on.
There was no stage. It was a record store, not a concert venue. One corner of the shop was set up with some speakers and a bit of space for Malin and his partner in crime, Derek Cruz, to play. They had traveled down to Philly and this store to celebrate the release of Malin’s new record, ‘Sunset Kids,’ the day before. No giant red carpet event, just Malin, Cruz, and about 50 people standing shoulder to shoulder in a hot store filled with relics of the past. Malin would play a couple of songs, sell a few records, sign some things, and everyone would leave happily.
It was more than that though.
I mentioned that buying records in 2019 was an act of defiance, but that’s not quite right, it’s an act of belief. It’s a way of saying that you still believe in music. It’s not background noise or disposable. Buying a record is saying that you’re willing to believe that the sound the comes off it is worth the time and effort.
Jesse Malin is a guy who still believes in music.
When you gather with other believers in a place, it’s not so much a store as it is a church. The posters on the walls were our saints. Don Mclean knew it back in ‘71 when he sang about going down to the sacred store, except here we were 45 years later and the music absolutely would play. We were there to hear it and Malin was there, a modern day traveling preacher, ready to deliver a sermon about rock and roll.
And a sermon is just what we got.
Malin doesn’t just play his songs, say thanks, and then leave. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s not his style. As you can hear in his music, he is a storyteller at heart. Between each song he tells stories about his life, about the songs, about anything really. He’s engaging and always interesting. More often than not, bands and artists will have a couple of spots where they might talk about a song or a cause, but with Malin it feels like a conversation between the audience and him. It was no different with a small in-store show.
He opened with two songs off the new record; ‘Chemical Heart’ and ‘Room 13’. After that he played a cover of the Pogues ‘If I Should Fall from Grace With God’ and followed it up with another new one ‘Shane’ which was written in honor of Shane MacGowan, one of rock’s great survivors and a friend of Malin’s. After that he played ‘When You’re Young’, which is also off of ‘Sunset Kids’. He played all of these songs with a joy and energy that belied the small setting.
At one point he talked about how excited he was about the new album’s release, saying he hadn’t felt this way since the release of ‘Fine Art of Self Destruction’. It’s cliche to hear a musician talk about how much they love their latest album, but it was impossible to deny the pleasure that radiated out of the new songs he’d just played.
And rightly so. I don’t know if ‘Sunset Kids’ will go down as a classic, or what its legacy will eventually be, but when I first listened to it after anxiously waiting for it to be delivered the day before the show, I knew it would be an album that will stick with me for a long time. My first impression was that it’s a very different kind of record than what Malin has made before.
When I got a chance to talk to Malin after his performance, I mentioned I loved the new album, and described it as ‘mellow’ and I’ve regretted it since. It’s absolutely the wrong word. Recorded in both New York and California and produced by alt-country / rock and roll great Lucinda Williams, it’s a whole new sound for Malin. The 14 songs shift back and forth from introspective, regretful, joyful, and melancholy. I said mellow because there are a number of slow songs on it, more than usual for Malin, but they’re not laid back. Mellow implies that the edges have been smoothed away, and that’s not the case. The edges that have always been in his music are still there, but he’s looking at them in a whole new way here. It’s not quite a reinvention but it does feel like an evolution. It’s certainly the first of his records to have pedal steel and slide guitar on it. No, it’s not mellow, but what it is, is hopeful. Malin has spent a lot of time in his career looking back and trying to understand the past, this record is all about looking towards the future. PMA as Jesse would say – positive mental attitude.
‘Sunset Kids’ opens with a reworked version of a song Malin released a couple of years ago called ‘Meet Me At The End of the World Again’. Previously a bouncy rock-pop song with some funk twists, the tune is now a roadhouse bar sing-along, complete with piano and Malin dropping down a few octaves to almost growl out the verses. And when I say sing-along I mean it – just about everyone sings on the song, including Mike Montali, frontman for Hollis Brown. It’s not really country or western, but it gives a heads up that the album is going to have a different vibe.
The next song is the one I think is going to go down as ‘the key track’ on the album – ‘Room 13’. It’s a song about the nebulous world of hotel rooms, being alone, being lonely, and being in between things. It’s a wonderful song that juggles melancholy and hope in equal measures. It’s also the most ‘California’ song he’s had since his third album ‘Glitter in the Gutter’ which was recorded out west. Co-Written by Lucinda Williams, with fuzzy almost-surf guitars, it’s a song that will stick with the listener for a long time.
‘Chemical Heart’ is a fun bouncy folk-rock song. There’re shades of Paul Simon in the ‘Me and Julio’ guitars, and echoes of Elton John in the ‘Crocodile Rock’ organ, which is fun in a song that name checks Bernie Taupin. The lyrics are all Malin. It’s impossible to not bop your head and bounce along to it. There’s a freedom and joy to it. There’s a couple of songs on the album that feel like they tell a story of Malin shedding some of his burdens and learning from some tough lessons.
‘When You’re Young’ is another song that doesn’t sound like much else in Malin’s catalog. It’s about growing up and the scars life leaves you with. During the course of making the album Malin lost his father and a depressing number of friends. For an album with some much hope in it, it also contains all the sadness of the loses. ‘When You’re Young’ is one of the songs that feels like it’s about those folks and Jesse’s grief. It’s a piano-led number that has shades of Billy Joel, and dark and smokey bar rooms. It’s a grown-up kind of song. One of the lines in it is ‘and it’s done and it leaves you with a scar’, which is a good summation of the song. It’s not bleak, but it gives voice to the kind of nagging grief that we all carry and just learn to live with. More resignation and dull ache than tears and rending clothes.
The first song that really knocked me for a loop on the album was ‘Promises’. After hearing it for the first time I double checked if it was an original or a Son Volt cover. It’s another song about the sadness of leaving, but with the album’s signature half-smile. The sound and texture are pure alt-country, something new for Malin. The slide guitar is beautiful, and perfect, and very different. Jay Farrar would approve.
The echoey vocals on ‘Do You Really Wanna Know’, coupled with the funky 70’s sound make for an odd combo but a great song. It almost feels like a dance number with the jumpy best and all the ‘Sha la la’s’. It captures some of the same vibe that ‘She Don’t Love Me Now’ did on his album ‘New York Before The War’ or Joe Strummer’s ‘Boogie with your Children’ from his seminal work ‘Earthquake Weather’. It’s confident, fun, and effortlessly cool. Sitting where it does on the album it feels like it really shows the range and breadth of the record.
The growly blues duet ‘Dead On’ closes out side one of the record. Malin sings along with Lucinda Williams on the dirtiest rocker on the album. The combo of rock and blues felt almost like a tribute to the late Tom Petty. Malin mentioned that he and Williams decided to do the album together just before Petty died and that connection shows here. It’s a powerful song and southern enough to be a new experience on a Malin album. If you played this song late at night while out driving, it would put you in the mood for some trouble.
Side two of the vinyl begins with ‘Shane,’ the tribute to Shane MacGowan. It feels almost like a hymn. With the gentle piano and the plaintive way Malin sings it, especially the lyric ‘Everybody Sends Their Love’, it could be a sequel to ‘Fairytale of New York’. It’s also one of a couple of songs on the album that feel very vintage Malin. This song wouldn’t be out of place on any of his previous albums, but still feels perfect here. His connection to rocks past runs through all of his music, but never more so than in this ode. Naturally when he played it in the record shop, he told a story about how one of the lines was inspired by Malin’s drinking with Hell’s Angels, because even though it’s Shane’s story, it’s also Jesse’s. If any song of the album gets famous, it’ll be this one.
‘Shining Down’ is about Malin’s father and his family. He prefaced the song by talking about reconnecting with his father in the last few years of his life, and you can hear the joy and sadness about that in the track. Like ‘Chemical Heart’ it’s about accepting life and keeping your head up. It’s a sad song, but also uplifting. It’s not just about loss but about appreciating the moments you get, and knowing that life keeps going. We all have to figure life out on a daily basis, and Malin who uses shows and his music as therapy sings about this better than anybody.
I admit I haven’t really figured out what to make of ‘Friends in Florida’. It’s a very low key song. When I called the album mellow, this was the song I was thinking of. I think it’s the immediate aftermath of the tragedies and sadness Malin went through making the album. It’s almost the opposite of ‘Shining Down’, which is probably the point. For all the uplift and acceptance in ‘Shining Down’, ‘Friends in Florida’ is about the sad moments where you’re sitting in a bar and missing people. There’s a line in it – ‘Lately I haven’t been doing alright’ – that feels like what it’s really about. Sometimes life is just hard, and I think that’s what this song is getting at.
That ‘Gray Skies Look So Blue’ follows ‘Friends in Florida’ is kind of cool. It’s about hitting the road and moving on, which is really the main theme of the album. But it takes all the rough emotions from ‘Friends in Florida’ and sheds them for some freedom and PMA. As someone who loves road trips and long drives it’s the kind of road song that I feel right down in my bones. Also as a big Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, the line about it being ‘Better stuck in Lodi than to end up like Sid’ made me more happy than it probably should. And I have to agree, better to keep going than to hit the end of the line. It doesn’t think the road is a cure, but it knows it’s a tonic.
‘Revelations’ is next and I was surprised at its inclusion. It’s a song originally on ‘Love it to Life’, Malin’s 2010 album with the St Marks Social. It also shows up on his B-sides collection ‘Hail Mary Gunners’ and coupled with a cover of Thirteen by Big Star on the ‘Meet Me At The End Of The World Again’ EP from a couple of years ago. It’s slowed way down from the original version on ‘Love It To Life’ here, but played about the same as on the EP, although without the mashup. Despite the album being a departure from previous works, ‘Revelations’ feels right here, both sonically and thematically. The line ‘Everything’s gonna be ok, gonna be alright, gonna be ok’ just feels perfect here.
‘Strangers and Thieves’ co-written with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day is the big rock number on the album. It’s an ebullient number, filled with cool guitars and driving drums, that feels like a release towards the end of the album. It sums up the album and gets the blood flowing and the feet moving. It’s a song that tells Jesse’s story, but also works as a mission statement. Fine Art of Self Destruction had ‘Wendy’, The Heat has ‘Hotel Columbia’, Glitter in the Gutter had well a couple of em but I’ll go with ‘Prisons of Paradise’, Love it to Life had ‘Burning the Bowery’, New York Before The War had ‘Addicted’, Outsiders had ‘Outsiders’, and in that grand tradition, Sunset Kids has ‘Strangers and Thieves’.
The record closes with ‘My Little Life’. It’s a sad and melancholy song about trying to fit in and feeling like an outsider. It’s a good way to finish the album. It’s a personal song and just simply about life, like the title says.
Throughout all the songs the musicianship is impeccable. Longtime co-horts Derek Cruz, Randy Schrager, Catherine Popper, and Rob Clores all shine throughout the record. The energy they have in live performances is all over each song.
I’ve listened to the album maybe a dozen times and I will listen to it a lot more as time goes by. A lot has happened to Malin in the four years since ‘Outsiders’. Some good, plenty of bad, and ‘Sunset Kids’ is a meditation on that. Life has its ups and downs, but growing up is about learning to keep your head high and keep going. It’s about moving on but knowing that we carry everything that happened with us. How we handle that burden is what defines us as human beings, and the fourteen songs on ‘Sunset Kids’ provide a road map of how Malin keeps going. Shot through with sadness, hope, and wisdom, there’s no filler here. Every song has weight and consequence. It’s Malin’s most mature and complex album to date and I can see why he is so excited.
After playing a few of the new songs, Malin started jumping back into his catalog. He played ‘Hotel Columbia’ and ‘Black Haired Girl’, both crowd favorites. After that he played ‘Brooklyn’ one of the finest songs about New York that I’ve ever heard, and probably my favorite song on his first album. That was followed up with ‘Wendy,’ also off ‘Fine Art’, and the only song he’s played every time I’ve seen him perform.
After ‘Wendy’ he played ‘Meet Me At The End of the World Again’, which is one of those songs that is better live than on the record, which is tough because it’s great on the record. It just feels like a song that needs a lot of voices at once. He followed that up by talking about his father and playing ‘Shining Down’. It was neat hearing it live knowing what it’s about. Malin sings it with so much pride and joy, it becomes a really special song.
I thought that would be it, but then he played ‘Since You’re in Love’ by request, which I’ve never heard him play before.
He closed with ‘She Don’t Love Me Now’, except instead of playing it the way he wrote it, they played it like Hollis Brown does in their cover version. It was a bit of an inception moment, since it sounded like Malin and Cruz covering a cover of their own song. I asked Cruz about it afterwards and he said he thinks it’s just a better way to play it. I will admit I love the cover more than the original, but it’s close.
Once the rock and roll sermon was over, Malin signed some records, and chatted with everyone who wanted to. He’s always good about that, but this was different. He seemed happier than I’ve ever seen him. He signed with a smile and an easy laugh.
Sometimes when a preacher gets the sermon just right, they know that the parishioners are going to leave the church filled with the Holy Spirit. Here in the church of music, Malin got it just right.
Jesse Malin has never given up on rock and roll. He made a record about accepting that this is his life and always will be. He came down to Philadelphia to tell us about it, and for one swampy August afternoon, we all got a little religion.