The characters on Jesse Malin’s new album, The Heat—his follow-up to 2002’s The Fine Art of Self-Destruction—are bathed in the filth of the City. They lead lives cracked as weathered cement—a divorced and abusive mother ("Her alimony’s once a month / She beats the kid he plays the drums / And oh oh oh life goes by"), a cross-dressing teen ("Paulie’s waiting to retire smoking like a forest fire / Putting on the panties and the lipstick in his mother’s room / Nothing to do / Nothing to lose"), and a forlorn, reflective lover ("We never had a baby, but she got more tattoos / And I got more material for the blues").
There’s often a measure of dissonance between the mood of the music and the message of the lyrics, but it’s not unwelcome. The combination yields a complexity many artists forego while compromising substance for accessibility. Malin’s writing is like a steak at a midnight diner; tough and meant for chewing. And he has a gift for tying sad, sometimes tragic stories with triumphant instrumentation that makes you want to beat your fist on the steering wheel. The real success, though, is that the sadness is never masked or washed out by the music’s bravado.
When coupled with his words, Malin’s voice—though it might be an acquired taste—is an effective aide in storytelling. Warm, gritty and sometimes reckless in the higher range, he comes off as both sincere and passionate. Those familiar with The Fine Art will be pleasantly surprised by this new album’s stronger vocal performance, one where the backing vocals (by Pete Yorn, Ryan Adams and Fountains of Wayne’s Jodie Porter) don’t outshine Malin’s lead.
The record’s production is both sharp and tasteful, done by Malin himself. Every guitar part and vocal track is in the right place. Close friend (and Fine Art producer) Ryan Adams, was originally hired to produce The Heat but had to step back from the project due to a severe wrist injury—an event that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
While many of the tracks on The Fine Art were struggling to make themselves at home, The Heat has already helped itself to the refrigerator. It's a collection of infectious songs that'll have you singing along by the nah nah nah’s of the second track, "Swinging Man."