The Gaslight Anthem, Pianos Become the Teeth, and the Art of Reinvention

There was a lot of talk about reinvention in the buildup to the Gaslight Anthem’s new album, Get Hurt. Brian Fallon called it the New Jersey band’s “weird album,” comparing it to stylistic left turns like U2’s Achtung, Baby, and freely admitting that it might alienate longtime fans.

Then they premiered the first single, and it was immediately recognizable as a Gaslight Anthem song. In fact, the raucous, energetic “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is the closest thing to their beloved debut album, Sink Or Swim, that they have released in years, and I loved it. I wasn’t going to complain that one of my favorite bands had a great new single, but part of me wondered if the band had really branched out as much as Fallon claimed.

Get Hurt does have its fair share of fresh ideas. The opener, “Stay Vicious,” is the grungiest entry in The Gaslight Anthem’s catalog and probably the most off-putting moment for old fans, while the title track and “Underneath the Ground” explore the softer sides of their sound without slipping into the well-trod territory of acoustic ballads.

By and large, however, the songs on Get Hurt are not that much different from those on Handwritten and American Slang. “1000 Years,” “Selected Poems,” and “Dark Places” are likely to become fan favorites simply because they show, once again, that The Gaslight Anthem are one of the best rock and roll bands making music today.

As a result, the strongest criticism that can be leveled at Get Hurt is that it fails to accomplish the reinvention on which Fallon seemed so intent during the production process. Sure, there is less Springsteen influence and more Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam, but the shift is nothing compared to Fallon’s foray into “nighttime music” with his side project, The Horrible Crowes, in 2011. I wasn’t expecting a dance record, and more great Gaslight Anthem songs are never a bad thing, but I can’t help but think Get Hurt is a bit of a missed opportunity for a well-established band to try something different.

That feeling came into sharper focus this week with the announcement of Keep You, the new full-length from Pianos Become the Teeth. Over the course of two albums and numerous split releases, the Maryland group has come to be defined by dense, hard-hitting instrumentation and, above all, vocalist Kyle Durfey’s ragged, tortured scream and emotionally ravaging lyrics.

All of these elements were perfected on 2011’s The Lack Long After, which found Durfey examining death and loss so closely that the album can be hard to listen to without tearing up a little bit, even when you know what’s coming. It’s the sort of work that defines a band, that sticks with them for the rest of their career. It’s the one against which all of their future releases will be measured.

The easiest way for a band to let fans down and lose the passion evident in their early work is to stay stagnant and try to replicate exactly what made one album so special. The Gaslight Anthem certainly understand that much. They have been slowly shedding Springsteen comparisons for years and continue to push themselves as songwriters despite fans clamoring for The ‘59 Sound Part 2. It just wasn’t until Get Hurt that they made it a central part of the promotional push, but even then it felt like a half-measure.

Pianos Become the Teeth have taken reinvention even further than The Gaslight Anthem. On the two songs released since The Lack Long After – “Hiding,” from a 2013 split with Touche Amore and Keep You’s first single, “Repine” – Durfey doesn’t scream once, the distortion is dialed back, and there is more melody than ever before. On the surface, this might seem like a totally different band, but despite huge stylistic changes, Pianos Become the Teeth have managed to preserve the intensity that has become their calling card.

For instance, it’s easy to imagine how Durfey’s scream would underscore the emotion in a line like, “There’s no good in your eyes anymore, and it makes you want to drive home drunk and alone, curse the faces in the wheat, drown yourself in the gold because you can’t let it go,” from “Hiding.” Instead he sings it, and the shaking, vulnerable delivery sells it better than any yell ever could.

According to Noisey, the band has fully embraced this new style, leaving Keep You with no screaming at all. There will undoubtably be some backlash from fans, but it’s exactly the kind of bold move that Brian Fallon was talking about in the months leading up to Get Hurt. I can’t wait to hear it for myself and find out if they actually pulled it off.

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