If a powerpop band gets really lucky, once in awhile they’ll earn a comparison to Willie Nile. He’s been the gold standard for hard-hitting, anthemic, edgy, lyrical four-on-the-floor rock for literally decades. He and his band are playing the album release show for his new one.American Ride at Highline Ballroom at 8 PM on June 26: tickets are still available as of today.
Nile’s music reflects his career. On one hand, he defines oldschool New York: a cynical surrealism pervades his lyrics. On the other hand, he never gave up: dumped on the trash heap by the major label machine, he rose from the ashes of a once-promising career to become one of the world’s most successful independent artists, and his indomitable worldview reflects that. Although he pretty much steers clear of specific political references, there’s an anthemic revolutionary sensibility anchoring much of his work. He’s closer to the Clash than the Who, both bands his music resembles and has drawn on deeply over the years.
The new album’s opening track, This Is Our Time, alludes to that spirit right off the bat. “Can you feel the power, can you feel the drive, can you feel the feeling that it’s good to be alive?” Nile asks, guitars slamming out catchy chords over a bubbling Johnny Pisano bassline. It’s a defining, classic Willie Nile moment.
Life on Bleecker Street motors along sarcastically, a basement apartment dweller contemplating the hordes of tourists drawn to the neighborhood’s cheesy bars: it’s possibly the only song to ever rhyme “Nikon” with “icon.” The jangly title track, a band-on-the-road scenario captures one of the few ways a musician can make money these days, bringing the music to the people instead of vice versa.
If I Ever See the Light, a clenched-teeth, intense, pulsing number, is a dead ringer for Nile’s buddy Springsteen, except better: it could pass for one of the great lost tracks from The River. And as much as She’s Got My Heart doesn’t have anything going on lyrically, the hook is irresistible.
The funniest song on the album is God Laughs, a big riff-rocker. As it turns out, the big G is a lot like us, with one major exception – and an ending that comes as a complete surprise. But deities don’t get off so easy on Holy War, a venomous Blue Oyster Cult-influenced smack upside the head of murderous zealots of every persuasion: Nile doesn’t let anybody off the hook. Jim Carroll’s People Who Died sticks close to the original except for a recurrent riff (another BOC reference), and the fact that the lyrics are easier to understand.
Say Hey reminds of the Stray Cats with its growling noir strut, and builds to a big Balkan horn raveup. The bouncy, Beatlesque Sunrise in New York City is a surprisingly unambiguous shout-out to Nile’s hometown, with a jaunty baritone guitar solo from lead player Matt Hogan, who slays throughout this album. The Crossing makes an elegant, metaphorically-charged art-rock ballad out of an Irish immigrant ballad. The final cut is There’s No Place Like Home, one of Nile’s signature litanies of strange imagery set to a Carl Perkins-style shuffle. There literally isn’t a weak track here: to say that it stands up alongside Nile’s other albums testifies both to the strength of this one and the rest of his formidable catalog.