Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon takes a break from his surging pop-punk outfit to pursue the more low-key side project The Horrible Crowes with his guitar tech Ian Perkins, but it’s something of a busman’s holiday. The Horrible Crowes’ debut album is still fundamentally a rock record: Fallon and Perkins slow the tempos and dull the roar, but Elsie’s songs are still built on drums and electric guitar, softened some with strings and horns. The songs aren’t all that different from Gaslight Anthem’s, either. Fallon doesn’t go in as much for quotes from his favorite musicians, but he still fills the lyric sheet with images of urban life, religious guilt, sudden violence, and girls’ names.
It’s because Elsie sounds so much like The Gaslight Anthem operating at half-power that the album proves disappointing. Fallon has said The Horrible Crowes was inspired by Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, and Afghan Whigs, but it’s the more cinematic, less riffy side of those acts that the band resembles. So while Elsie has a few songs that pop out—the pumping “Behold The Hurricane,” the darkly romantic “Crush,” the gentle, piano-accented “Black Betty & The Moon”—the rest of the record sounds like an adult-contemporary record, but with an excess of strained growls and verses so dense that Fallon seems at times to be reading, not singing. If this adventure into the rumble-y leads to more eclecticism on the next Gaslight Anthem album, then Elsie will have been worth it. On its own merits though, the album comes off like a talented musician sketching out some ideas, but without the muscle to will them to fruition.