(SXSW 2016 flavoured!) Album Review: Brian Fallon – Painkillers

By on Wednesday, 9th March 2016 at 12:00 pm

Brian Fallon Painkillers coverIn the wake of the Gaslight Anthem’s current “indefinite hiatus”, frontman Brian Fallon has struck out on his own with a cathartic new album titled ‘Painkillers’.  Produced by Butch Walker, who has recently helmed albums by Frank Turner and Ryan Adams, the album has a very definite alt-country flavour, which comes as perhaps a welcome change of pace for Fallon himself as well as for his listeners.

The LP’s eponymous track neatly sums things up, with Fallon’s vocals harshly exposed in the raw, rough-edged chant of a chorus “we want love like it was a drug / all we wanted was a little relief / and every heart I held in between / they were painkillers to me”. Vocals in the forefront of the sound mix is normally positive for a stripped back, folk rock album like this one, but it’s a less-than-advantageous placement for Fallon, whose singing voice becomes abrasive and tiring to the ear after only a few songs. The songs themselves, however, are engaging and often anthemic as Fallon plays to his songwriting strengths, for example in the upbeat and uplifting opening track ‘A Wonderful Life’.

‘Among Other Foolish Things’ takes a more reflective tack, starting with the line “Lily, I don’t know how to start this letter…” and ending with the recollection “…there was this one time, when I painted a masterpiece / among other foolish things”. Sandwiched between this and the gently rocking ballad ‘Steve McQueen’ is the recently unveiled ‘Smoke’, which features Fallon’s gritty vocals over a classic alt-country combination of acoustic guitar, piano and drums. Its off-kilter chorus is wordy and not exactly catchy, but its second repeat is followed by an equally off-kilter key change whose harmony turns out to be both deliberate and interesting.


Mid-album tracks ‘Nobody Wins’ and ‘Rosemary’, which came across as much more engaging in Fallon’s live perfomance in Tucson last month, fall a bit flat in the studio recording, as the heavy sound compression and Fallon’s pressed vocals begin to take their toll on the listener’s ear. Nevertheless, memorable lyrics shine through in the singalong chorus of the former song and the emotive delivery of the lines “everybody’s hurt and mine ain’t the worst / but it’s mine and I’m feeling it now” in the latter.


Fallon saves some true songwriting gems for the second half of ‘Painkillers’, including the deftly constructed Americana track ‘Long Drives’. The gentle wail of pedal steel is heard here, along with banjo and gospel-style organ, and Fallon matches traditional gospel harmonies with suitably evocative lyrics, juxtaposing “we tasted a kiss that was sent from the Lord” with “I keep a letter you wrote before the devil came in the picture.” The lyrics in this song’s final verse are among some of Fallon’s best as he muses “last night I remembered being 17 / I met a girl with a taste for the world and whisky and rites of spring”. He invokes the name Janey as his female subject here, matching a moniker used in similar songs by both Bruce Springsteen and, more recently, Foy Vance.

Standout track ‘Honey Magnolia’ is set up by a gentle piano introduction ahead of bittersweet chorus lines delivered from the viewpoint of a female protagonist: “…I’ll call when I wanna, call you Honey Magnolia / I’ll be the one to let you know when the sweet taste is gone”. The slight lyric change in the song’s final chorus becomes heartbreakingly poignant over a gently wailing guitar melody. The down-and-dirty ‘Mojo Hand’ leads into final track ‘Open All Night’, which despite its lyrical reference to Don Henley’s slick 80’s pop track ‘Boys of Summer’ is itself organic alt-country, with all the heart-on-sleeve grit and introspective folk temperament that Fallon could never get away with in his previous work with the Gaslight Anthem.

After the heavier rock of the Gaslight Anthem and the darker, more groove-based sound of previous duo project the Horrible Crowes, ’Painkillers’ represents a third iteration of Brian Fallon as a songwriter. While much of his thematic material is the same as we’ve heard from him in the past, the musical context on ‘Painkillers’ is quite different. Somewhat unfortunately, the raw folk rock style on this album exposes both Fallon’s strength as a songwriter and his weaknesses as a singer. Because his overly aggressive vocals are pushed to the forefront of the audio mix on this recording, the songs lose the magnetic emotional quality that the charismatic Fallon brings to their live versions. Still, this is a cohesive collection of bittersweet, radio-friendly anthems that will likely appeal to Fallon’s ever-broadening fan base.


‘Painkillers’ is due for release this Friday, the 11th of March, on Virgin EMI (UK) and Island Records (North America). Update 12 March 2016: In case you missed it, Fallon has been announced as a late addition to the Auditorium Shores lineup at SXSW 2016 on Thursday night. The show, which will be free to all, will include Fallon at 6 PM. For more information on the evening’s lineup that includes headliner Ray LaMontagne, visit this link.

Fallon is currently in the midst of a full North American tour. He has also announced a list of April tour dates in the UK, which are right back this way. All of TGTF’s previous coverage of Brian Fallon can be found by clicking here.

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