Through the Cracks

There are some benefits of big-city gentrification. Jesse Malin's brilliant new record is one of them.

For example, while the rich, rough timbre of Malin's voice makes it more digestible than Johnny Thunders' cracked yowl, the delivery owes much to the New York Dolls guitarist and later frontman of the Heartbreakers. If you've never heard the desperate ballads Thunders sang, just imagine a pile of internal organs -- mostly hearts and guts -- on a bar stool, oozing love notes onto napkins. Malin's first solo effort finds this vocal tradition, previously carried by Minnesota's Westerberg, finally coming back home to a new torchbearer. In the stark "Solitaire," it rises from defiant shiftlessness to the most determined scream you've ever heard in a folk-rock song.

Lyrically, even if the 12-song collection was never meant to be "a New York album," as Malin says, it's certainly as much about New York as anything since Lou Reed's New York. Like the city itself, The Fine Artis chaotic and beautiful. Song after song, Malin throws in references to John Travolta, Duke Ellington, "Harlem mamas," Central Park, Coney Island's infamously dangerous Tilt-a-Whirl, landlords, sleazy lawyers, rooftops, and even the kitchen sink (literally -- check out the second track, "TKO"). But just when you think the narrative is a barreling, holy mess, it crystallizes with a painterly verse: "I'm an old whore/ In a thrift store/ Looking for something black," observes the title track. "Ain't no wishing well/ Underneath the El/ I still hope someday we might meet," Malin sings on "Riding on the Subway," referring to the much-romanticized elevated train line that once ran through his own Lower East Side neighborhood.

Make that Malin's former neighborhood, as The Fine Artwas financed with a windfall Malin received from his landlord in exchange for turning over his apartment to wealthier tenants. "Before I had a record deal, I didn't know if anybody was gonna hear the record besides my cats," says Malin, who initially released the album on his own One Little Indian Records before signing with major indie Artemis. "I had to make the record with money from when they paid me to leave my apartment so they could jack the rent up and rent it to yuppies."


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"Brooklyn," on its surface a love song about a girl, addresses the issue of Manhattan's newly sanitized aura with the delicacy of a true lover of the city. "It's about this particular girl I was really grieving over at the time," Malin explains. But it's full of regret for missing color, "trannies near work," "sad songs of doom and gloom." The chorus seems to mourn not just a lost soul, but the lost soul of a place: "You started out with nothing but lonely days/ You started out with nothing but throwaways."

"It's just another place," says Malin of his freshly scrubbed downtown. "Definitely not the place where in the '70s I could look out the window of my mother's car and it looked like you're jumping into Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy."

Asked about the possible benefits of gentrification, Malin gets a little acidic: "Sure, you can't dance, you can't smoke, you can't laugh." But The Fine Art is about as lucky a side effect as you can expect from a pill as dubious as "urban renewal." The album also marks an alluring notion: that a "red rose" still grows in Spanish Harlem, and in Malin's Lower East Side, maybe even here in North Beach, or in front of a Banana Republic.

City Songs

Since he seems to have nailed the songs-about-a-city thing, we asked Jesse Malin to give us his top five tunes that other artists have written about cities. Here is what he told us:

"Gates of the West" by the Clash -- "The romance of traveling -- via rock 'n' roll -- into New York, the excitement and the mystery of it all."

"Jacksonville Skyline" by Ryan Adams -- "Paints a pretty sad and miserable picture of having to escape your hometown. No wonder he likes living in New York so much."

"Olympia" by Rancid -- "This makes me want to get out and get on the highway and drive forever."

"Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen -- "The romance and decay of a place that once was."

"Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues -- "A failed romance, a beautifully painted Gotham City backdrop: Christmas, jail cells, Sinatra, and booze. Shane MacGowan knows how to romanticize the dark poetry of NYC." -- A.M.

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