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~~~~~~ The Fine Art of Self Destruction ~~~~~~
On Wednesday 23 November, I was in Heaven. This is because I spent a couple of hours in the company of Jesse Malin & The St Marks Social (TSMS) and witnessed the live performance of this album in its entirety, as a celebration of almost a decade since its release. Having come back down to Earth with a rather dissatisfying bump the morning after (and a completely useless left ear!), I figured it's only right I should start to put together a review of it. Grab back some of the magic and prolong my state of squealing fangirl.
Jesse Malin is a singer/songwriter from New York City and has been performing on the scene since he was just 13; he is now in his early 40s so is a seasoned performer. I think it shows, he is just utterly captivating in the flesh (oops, there goes fangirl again), with his infectious energy and enthusiasm. He really gives it his all and makes no secrets of what his songs are about.
The Fine Art of Self Destruction (TFAOSD) was Jesse's first solo studio release, in 2002 (on One Little Indian Records) and was recorded in just 5 days. Ryan Adams is counted among his friends and as well as collaborating with him on occasion, it is he who produced this album.
~~~ Cover & inlay design ~~~
This as a whole is pretty simple. We see Jesse looking a bit moody (and exceptionally gorgeous!) on a subway platform. The liner notes contain lyrics to all the songs (I love this, I like to read lyrics when I don't know songs). There are a few photos dotted through the booklet, and it is all in shades of grey. Very Jesse. Simple but effective.
~~~ The players~~~
This album of course pre-dates his current band TSMS (though if I may say, they play it beautifully!) and those musicians who contributed to this album are as follows:
* Johnny Pisano - bass, upright bass, background vocals
* Paul Garisto - drums
* Joe McGinty - piano, Hammond organ, wurlitzer
* Toby Dammit - percussion
* Ryan Adams - electric guitars, background vocals, keyboards
* Melissa Auf der Maur - background vocals
* Richard Fortus - lead guitar on "Queen of the Undrworld"
* Esko - lead guitar on "TKO"
~~~~~~ Price & availability ~~~~~~
I bought this from eBay some time ago, after seeing Jesse live for the first time (having not known him before then) for just £5 delivered. You can also buy it from all the usual places - iTunes (£7.99), hmv.com (£4 free P&P), Play.com (£5.99 free P&P), Amazon (from £2.69).
His YouTube channel can be found here - www.youtube.com/stmarkssocial
(You can see my video of "Brooklyn" from the Glasgow show here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUcKBR5NL​cA if you wish)
~~~~~~ Tracks ~~~~~~
There is not a single song on this album that I don't like, and one thing that really does strike me about this album is the change of mood from one song to the next. It keeps it, in my opinion, rather fresh and interesting. Jesse's work is, to me at least, very interesting anyway as I love his lyrical turn of phrase. Few of the songs stretch much over 4 minutes, but they are all jam packed with the thing I love to hear most in a song - a story.
-- 1. Queen of the Underworld (3:43)
Opening the album is this ever so slightly melancholy tune. "All the things you have are broken...you know I'm singing just for you" Love, or rather lost love, seems to be a common theme for Jesse. He has openly admitted to writing songs to get the attention of a certain someone, and this is one of those songs where I think it is apparent. I really like the overall tempo of this song, it's not too fast, but neither is it a slow 'sad' sounding song. A very satisfying start I think.
-- 2. TKO (3:26)
This has a brilliant opening riff, it's very calm and when the vocals come in it's almost like you can hear the strain at keeping control. I think you can hear so much emotion in this one. Some of my favourite lyrics here which I think highlight the need to get used to Jesse's turn of phrase, "Poetry or destiny on bar napkins, writing faded flowers paying for my sins". Throughout, this song retains its controlled and highly strung feel and I can't stay still when it's on. It sucks you right in, chews you up a little then spits you out.
-- 3. Downliner (4:10)
"That's the way you know the story goes, between euphoria and the afterglow", fantastic opening line. This song is so clearly an ode to someone. It tells a story of two people who, to paraphrase, life changed and rearranged even after all they'd been through. This is a beautiful sounding song, with a slower tempo and some really nice, almost crashing riffs. The vocals certainly sound sad, almost pleading, while Jesse sings his own little message out "You and me you know we don't talk much, it's hard to handle something you can't touch....".
-- 4. Wendy (3:27)
To use Jesse's own words, this song is about a "beached relationship". On Wednesday, he told us he wrote this song while with someone, and changed the name as it's about someone else! This is a punkier, very fast and just overall a brilliant tune. Starting with a very sexily-strummed guitar before the drums come thundering in, his vocals are perfect when they follow seconds later. This song is rather urgent, as if he's looking for answers; a chorus of "I don't know, I don't know, I don't why...dreams dying slowly....we don't want to be alone"
-- 5. Brooklyn (4:34)
Brooklyn is a somewhat stripped back song - largely vocal and guitar only. I personally just can't get enough of this song. I love Jesse's voice. It's so clear and every word is heartfelt. He sings a slow story of how things used to be and what things have become "...wondering how we become what we despise...you couldn't live with me so you moved to Brooklyn" I think it's a story of life and growing up (getting "blood money in the bank"), things changing. It's a mellow song; not overly sad though you can hear sadness in the lyrics.
-- 6. The Fine Art of Self Destruction (3:54)
The title track, this is a groaning, moaning kind of song. The music and the vocals project a real feeling of displeasure. I really like it, it's moody and it grabs you, until you feel like you're on the edge of your seat hoping it turns out okay. The lyrics are very poetic and worth a read for sure. There's a promise in there to make it up to someone, if he would only get the chance.
-- 7. Riding on the Subway (4:13)
As you may guess, this is about riding on the subway! This song was inspired by an unknown girl, spied on the subway clutching her vinyls (Jesse's a sucker for old school) and just as he was gathering the nerve to say hello to her, the doors opened and off she went. This track opens with an almost sinister sounding percussion and a striking bass line. His vocals again are moody and the overall tone of his voice is quite low and husky throughout the verses. The music here is really interesting, it's probably the most 'different' song on the whole album. He sings of general things seen on the subway which makes for interesting daydreams and some really strong imagery, before he gets round to his mystery girl. "One day I saw you in your seat...if I only had the guts to speak...I still hope someday we might meet". I would recommend watching the video for this song, I really like it.
-- 8. High Lonesome (4:05)
There was a time when Jesse considered hanging up his songwriting hat. This song speaks of his desire to maybe "drop out of circulation...change my occupation". Luckily though, he did not. "What they call honest living kills me..chills me" is an admission that he can't think how else to make a living, so he should stick at what he's good at. This is a song about his own feelings, and how he feels about the effects the industry can have on a life; there are references to a certain person he "can't forget". The song has a brilliant foot tapping beat and it's another I find myself singing along to, at the top of my voice. Very catchy and although the lyrics are somewhat sad the song isn't depressing.
-- 9. Solitaire (4:19)
Here's a chilled out song. Starting with just a gentle guitar riff and a 'na na nana na na', it is just lovely. The lyrics convey such loneliness though, how there are "no real regrets, I don't need anyone". He dreams of a lonely future. The entire song is quite slow with just that guitar and the vocals almost quiet, save for a little shout at the chorus. It's quite emotional, and I think Jesse's distinctive voice lends itself well to songs such as this.
-- 10. Almost Grown (3:04)
This song is all about Jesse's parents and his childhood. It's a jumpy, cheery sounding song musically despite opening with the line "My parents split up in the fourth grade, my father never did come back". He tells a story of a struggling mother with a son and daughter who are all alone and only "almost grown". I love the lyrics of this song and the way that Jesse sings them, the rhythm is very good . His vocals sound a little tortured, as if he still feels the sadness. The song starts to end with as ode to his late mother and how he just wants to see her again.
-- 11. Xmas (3:27)
Xmas is very clearly about a lost love, how he accepts the blame and how the holiday brings it all back; how he still thinks of her, hopes she's alright with whoever she may be with. This is another one that is quite subdued in mood, with unhappy sounding vocals dripping with emotion and mellow music. There is a nice touch of Christmas bells in there, but funnily enough it does nothing to lift the mood. This is a beautiful, but I think deeply sad, song.
-- Bonus track: Brooklyn (band) (4:40)
This is the same song as track 5, but with more input from the band - there is a longer, heavier jamming ending to the song, and far more instruments involved throughout. It is utterly fabulous, and it's nice to have both versions of Brooklyn as it's one of my favourite songs. The overall feel of this bonus track is louder and heavier, though the same emotions still come through loud and clear.
~~~~~~ Overall ~~~~~~
Jesse admits to singing for attention, and last week he told us he wrote this entire album in an attempt to catch someone's eye. I think it's very apparent as the theme of love and lost love comes through in so many songs. You don't read gossip about Jesse Malin, he manages (or chooses) to stay just far enough under the radar that the world doesn't know his business. Not everyone knows who he writes his songs for, who he misses so much. In this way, I think his singing for attention is brilliant - he puts his all into his songs and never hides what they are about, or what he feels. It is sometimes wrapped in his rather unique turn of phrase, but it's all in there waiting to be deciphered. And it is this truth, I feel, that makes his songs so compelling.
Every song on this album is a joy to listen to, and despite a lot of them being stories with unhappy endings, this will not plunge you into the depths of despair. TFAOSD is a flawless album in my opinion, there is nothing I dislike about it, no song to skip, no lyrics I think are daft, nothing that makes me cringe or turn the volume down. I would strongly urge you to give it a listen (you get 90 seconds worth of preview on iTunes these days, so that's almost half the song!) I think Jesse Malin will appeal to fans of alternative/rock music and probably old school punk too, but I do think he's versatile enough to appeal to a decent chunk of the masses. Easy thing for me to say though, I do appreciate.
~~~~~~ The last word ~~~~~~
From the man himself "...I'd sing it, I'd just be warming up, I'd be like 'just a run through' and he'd be like, that's it, you're done. I'm like, f*ck you -- I want to sing, and I thought it was rubbish. A couple days later, I realised that he'd captured something, that there was a real vibe there, a real snapshot of what was going on." - Jesse, on recording TFAOSD.