Hailed six years ago in Rolling Stone as rock's Great White Hope, DGeneration and its singer Jesse Malin summoned with aplomb the ghosts of Max's Kansas City. The unruly quintet bottlenecked the Dictators, Dolls and Ramones and gloriously burped them forth into the faces of an uncaring and Korn-happy public. After two splendid though heavily financed records on Columbia and one EMI misfire -- and endless touring that brought said ghosts to the kiddies -- DGen failed. Failed hard. And, sadly, nobody cared.
After DGen fizzled in 1999, front man Malin, bassist Howie Pyro and drummer Joe Rizzo constructed the short-lived PCP Highway as a vehicle for the singer's songs. When Pyro split for greener pastures with Danzig, Malin took Rizzo, new guitarist Esko and bassist Johnny Pisano and, after a brief period playing under the moniker Tsing Tsing, became Bellvue.
Bellvue's just-released To Be Somebody, like the music of DGen, is still loud, obnoxious rock 'n' roll, but it comes with an avalanche of moodiness. With the help of producer Bryce Goggin (Spacehog, Pavement, Breeders) and indie stalwarts such as Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams (who's currently producing Malin's solo record), Malin on To Be Somebody moves beyond the expectations of DGeneration. He offers melancholia as if it's a bankable commodity, while taking themes of failed promise and could've-been-a-contender woe like a man with limited time on his hands. The stuff his previous bands only hinted at.
From the down-tuned DGenerationish opener ("My Life") and Sister Double Happiness cover ("Sweet Talker"), to the comely ("Solitaire") and the countrypolitan closer ("Downliner") -- the songs on To Be Somebody go lengths to show how Malin wisely used his punk rock roots merely as a launching pad, a base from which to develop a real sense of song craft. Here's a guy once pigeonholed as a mop-headed ponce -- the heir to the Stiv Bators throne of cartoonish front men -- that simply appropriated a heartless rawk-dude persona. In DGeneration subtlety was, for the most part, out the window.
Underpinning everything is Malin's nectar-meets-tree-shredder voice, which at times can be a lovely thing, particularly when it honors melody. It's a voice that is at once fragmented and soaring. He can go from an Ian Astbury screech to a teary-eyed Robin Zander, coating the minor keys with honey. What's remarkable is how driven Jesse Malin sounds; could be he's living the album's title as if it's some kind of spiritual foretelling.
Yet, at its lowest moments, Bellvue could be accused of having melody fear, where Malin hides true sentiment behind walls of power chords, and choruses are sometimes buried in unnecessary masculine guitar tweaking and noisy production.
At the band's best, when all green lights are flashing, the record shimmers with a strangely sad heart-swelling cheer. Malin possesses what time-tested songwriters have and most of his contemporaries do not: A heart and sensitivity to his surroundings. This from a New York kid weaned on the Blank Generation.
Malin could simply be a guy doomed never to sell records, one stepping out of time in a profession based on timing. Then again, he's never made music for normal folk with proper jobs or chubby suburban brats stuffed on Doritos and ersatz Bizkit angst.
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