Jesse Malin’s heart is undeniably in the right place. He’s lovingly obsessed with the idea that the Lower East Side can still be some sort of rock and roll Mecca, and he’s a staunch proponent of the idea that music can change lives and help to forge identities; his, perfectly summed up by the title of his new album, Glitter in the Gutter, and the photo contained on its cover: the unabashed pretty boy as concerned with his hair as he is with his street cred. It’s a schtick you may recognize from his pal Ryan Adams, but it’s never been clear who stole it from whom. There is, however, very little question regarding who writes better songs.
Although, actually, that might not be entirely accurate. Malin, who co-owns the bar Niagara on Avenue B, and was previously known as the frontman for NYC glam band D Generation, shifted gears after the band’s 1999 break-up, and, like so many others around that time, started doing the alt-country thing. His understanding of the genre and his knack for finding appropriate and interesting structures was immediately evident. His melodies, too, were often top-notch. But what he could never quite overcome, and still can’t, sadly, is his voice: consistently overwrought and actually quite weak — it’s enough to ruin a good song in seconds flat.
Much of Glitter in the Gutter is made up of fairly standard bar-rock songs that were probably supposed to sound like the Replacements, but wind up sounding a lot more like the Wallflowers. Malin even includes a cover of the Mats’ ‘Bastards of Young’, reinterpreted as a piano ballad and sung in warbly, delicate voice that, by seeking to call attention to the underlying sadness that was always the Replacements’ most notable quality, completely cancels it out. It’s these nuances that Malin can’t seem to wrap his head around, and what will ultimately keep him forever toiling in this strange middle ground where he can’t quite win over the type of person he was when he was younger, but also can’t quite achieve massive mainstream success. Or, in short, the album cover sure does speak volumes.