There’s something perfectly fitting about the decidedly antiquated the Gaslight Anthem releasing something as antiquated as a B-sides collection. Frontman Brian Fallon’s lyrics always have been obsessed with those things largely confined to pop culture history: cool jazz, idols of the early silver screen, and women with lives so irresponsibly led that they need Brian Fallon to write songs about them. And rarities collections can often be a remarkable insight into the development of a group’s sound through the kind of freedom that seems to disappear with the self-consciousness of making an album. Listen to The Beatles Anthology, Matador’s remarkable set of Pavement reissues, or even the collection of rare tracks and drafts Flying Lotus dropped recently and you’ll get an incredible sense of the artist developing. Unfortunately, and in spite of some good performances, there’s nothing like that on offer here.
What the set is offers is five acoustic versions of their own material, five covers, and one pseudo-rarity, ‘She Loves You’, which, like most of tracks, was available on their 2013 Singles Collection. ‘She Loves You’ is a worthy part of their canon, with its simple arpeggios and sing-along chorus. It fits especially with the slow, acoustic takes on the record, largely culled from a radio session with KEXP. ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘The ’59 Sound’, the band’s calling cards, are gorgeously rendered. ‘The Queen of Lower Chelsea’ is a revelation compared to its studio version, suddenly an austere, chilling ballad. It’s certainly enough to make the listener think that frontman Fallon could follow his hero and make a Nebraska someday.
On a slightly throwaway cover of Pearl Jam’s ‘State of Love and Trust’, we’re reminded the band are first and foremost punks, and that Fallon does a top notch Eddie Vedder impression, and a laidback take on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Tumbling Dice’ is a rare glance at the band’s fun side. Yet the best covers here are the lesser known ones, with a stirring performance of Fake Problems’ ‘Songs for Teenagers’ and the album closing ‘Once Upon a Time’ (by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise), both easily camouflaged amongst the band’s own material.
Ultimately though, the collection is in a most uncomfortable position. It’s something only a true fan would want, filled with material that any true fan would already have. Even if the material was obscure, the peaks can’t help it still feel underwhelming overall. Call it a cash-in, call it completist or call it an exercise in cynicism, but seriously, listen to ‘Queen of Lower Chelsea’.