For fans of the Gaslight Anthem, it's hard not to speculate on what singer Brian Fallon's solo debut will mean for the band they love. Successful solo projects frequently spell doom for the beloved group whence the soloist came, so it's probably tempting to enjoy this debut, Painkillers, with a caveat: It's good, but it's not Gaslight Anthem good.
Still, taken in or out of context, this is a damn good record. Fallon's songwriting is warm and varied, and there's more soul and character in his voice than ever before. Painkillers is the 36-year-old Jersey boy's opportunity to prove that he can, on his own, live up to the high expectations that have been set out for him.
Comparing Fallon to Springsteen is, by this point, a tired and trite exercise — yet, in a way, still somewhat necessary, given Springsteen's obvious musical and geographical influence — so let's just say this: the Boss's influence has never been more discernible than you'll find on songs like "A Wonderful Life" and "Rosemary." But to typecast Fallon would be to undermine much of what Painkillers has to offer.
It's perhaps fairer to view it as an assemblage of the many distinct sounds from the glory days of rock'n'roll: there are rich, Tom Petty-esque songs, like "Painkillers" and "Nobody Wins"; there are gentle and emotive folk numbers like "Honey Magnolia" and "Steve McQueen"; and there's his classic, workin' class vibe on "Smoke," a chant-along that's by far the album's best. Fallon even dips a toe into country-western later on the record with "Long Drives," "Mojo Hand" and "Open All Night."
All told, Painkillers does many things well and few things poorly. It's not a Gaslight record, but it's one that fans will find familiar. And for those who may have felt the band, now on hiatus, had lost some of their edge recently, on the less poignant Get Hurt, particularly, a new channel for Brian Fallon's many creative threads could bring some focus and direction back to the band, eventually. After all, it's hard to conceive that Gaslight will just fade away, never to return; in any case, there's a lot to enjoy from Brian Fallon here. (Island)