For more than a decade, Jesse Malin has been a promising singer-songwriter better known for his friendships with the likes of Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen than for anything he's written or recorded himself. A lot of what makes Malin's likeable third solo album, Glitter In The Gutter, so surprising is that it comes three years after The Heat, a misbegotten arena-rock record full of grunty songs about clichéd beautiful losers. What's doubly surprising is that Glitter In The Gutter doesn't drastically alter The Heat's approach. Malin's production is still slick and grand, and Malin still sings about heroic lovers in a strained, whiny voice. But Glitter's songs come more tightly packed, and at a brisker pace. The opening roots-rock anthem "Don't Let Them Take You Down (Beautiful Day!)" delivers its hummable chorus and gritty licks in less than three minutes, setting the standard for an album that tries, for once, not to overreach.
Malin is still a little confused about whether he'd rather be the next Tom Petty or the next Liam Gallagher, and as a result, he often comes off sounding like the next Bon Jovi, albeit with an ease and skill that's more like how Bon Jovi is supposed to be. Still, Malin now seems content to deliver peppy, no-big-deal sing-along rockers like "In The Modern World" and "Lucinda," which click along steadily, sparkling only at the fringes. When Malin invites Springsteen to join him on the moody "Broken Radio," Malin is outclassed by his mentor's vocals, but at least Springsteen doesn't sound like he's slumming by singing one of Malin's compositions. By and large, the songs on Glitter In The Gutter are confident and well-crafted, in the street-poet tradition of Tom Waits and Willie Nile. Malin even slips in a statement-of-purpose piano-ballad rendition of The Replacements' "Bastards Of Young," and doesn't miss a stride.