Patrick Foster, writing in The Washington Post, begins his review of The Gaslight Anthem's new album American Slang like so: "Though many have tried, Gaslight Anthem might be the first millennial band to truly crack the Dad Rock market." He offers no specific definition of "Dad Rock," though it's easy enough to infer one. Foster mentions American Slang's "sweaty, radio-ready rock vibrancy that could easily sweep across demographic boundaries" and the New Jersey quartet's "Petty, Springsteen, Strummer and Westerberg-isms."
With Foster, at least, the term doesn't look to disparage the band, or dads, not in the way that, say, a description of Susan Tedeschi's work as "blues for soccer moms" feels. No, the Dad Rock tag simply seems to target music designed to appeal to 20-somethings as well as their 40- and 50-something fathers, largely because the music offers echoes of artists who fill the oldsters' record shelves. Familiarity breeds content, and across every genre, teaching old ears new tricks has never been easy.
Offense? None taken. I'm a Gaslight Anthem fan, proud of it. I'm a dad, too, and proud of it. In fact, if you're looking for a poster pop for Dad Rock, sign me up. I'm easy: All I need to be happy—musically, at least—are some guitars, preferably those with the chainsaw energy of late '70s Clash. The twangy soul approach of Reggie Young works just fine, too. I like a chorus I can shout along with as I blast down the highway with the top down. (OK, it's more like a calculated 7 mph over the speed limit. And it's a sunroof.) Good stories are a must. A backbeat that double-times my heartbeat is a plus, as are any guest appearances by a Hammond organ.
In other words, I don't need anything new and different. Just something new and old. Halfway through 2010, four of my favorite releases of the year comfortably, and unapologetically, are Dad Rock: Delta Spirit's History From Below, The Hold Steady's Heaven is Whenever, Jesse Malin & the St. Marks Social's Love It to Life and American Slang.
The Hold Steady, Jesse Malin and The Gaslight Anthem hit all of those aforementioned rock 'n' roll sweet spots. The Hold Steady holds court in the exact spot where Led Zeppelin, the E Street Band and Thin Lizzy intersect. Malin wore his collection on his sleeve with 2008's, um, On Your Sleeve, covering the likes of Elton John, Lou Reed, The Pogues, Neil Young and even The Hold Steady. We, apparently, have the same tailor. And with American Slang, Brian Fallon and his Jersey boys continue to try to distill every single record I own—from the obvious folks (see Foster's quartet above) to the Gin Blossoms and Beat Farmers and various Motowners—into one three-and-a-half-minute, perfect-world jukebox single.
The center icons for Dad Rock remain Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer. The former's importance to The Gaslight Anthem is so obvious it's not worth discussing. They should go ahead and title a song "Maria and the Angels of St. Romeo Street." The fist-pumping "I'Da Called You Woody, Joe" on Sink or Swim is a tribute to the latter. In addition to the sonic debts The Hold Steady owes Springsteen, the band contributed a cover of "Atlantic City" to the War Child compilation Heroes, and the Stay Positive track "Constructive Summer" raises a toast to "Saint Joe Strummer." Malin has recorded "Hungry Heart" and "Death or Glory," and Springsteen made a cameo on Malin's Glitter in the Gutter.
The words work as reminders, too: The titles of American Slang's "Old Haunts" and "We Did It When We Were Young" make that pair's nostalgic leaning crystal clear. Heaven is Whenever's "Our Whole Lives" could be about a couple of Dad Rockers trying hard to behave. Make a few tweaks to The Hold Steady's "Hurricane J," and it's the story of a father's concern for a 20-year-old daughter.
City scenes and characters still feel exotic to this small-town boy. Bruce Springsteen had me at "The Rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night." The Gaslight Anthem's Fallon hooked me 35 years later with "The steam heat pours from the bodies on the floor/ In the basement where the Jackknives play," Malin with his tales of burning on the Bowery.
The outlier here is Delta Spirit's History From Below. It substitutes the other three records' punk-rock jolt for a folk-rock glide, but it's no less Dad Rock-worthy— different isms, same kinds of record-shelf connections. In her Crawdaddy! review of Delta Spirit's debut, Ode to Sunshine, Angela Zimmerman cites The Band, Neil Young, The Byrds and Van Morrison as touchstones for the San Diego-based band, and those influences carry on in History From Below. Even the quartet's name and the implied preoccupation with the American South bring to mind another California band that dads dig, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Zimmerman calls Delta Spirit's output "the stuff composed by kids who dug through their parent's record collections and found their searching, adolescent selves in the worn covers and well-tread grooves of those albums." That might be the best and most adaptable definition of Dad—and Mom—Rock possible.