Jesse Malin was, as he puts it, born and bred in Queens. But after a decade of solo albums recorded in New York, the former frontman for Nineties glam-punks D Generation wanted to try a change of scenery, holing up in a Virginia farmhouse to avoid the distractions of the city.
Instead, he was harassed by livestock. "I got chased by goats!" he says with a distinct five-boroughs laugh. "They were yelling at me." Dining also proved to be a challenge: "I'm vegetarian, and the closest health-food place was five miles away — it was called Walmart."
Malin followed his rural experiment with a European tour, then continued working on music when he returned home. Collaborating with guitarist-producer Derek Cruz, the singer recruited a handful of indie-oriented guests, including the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, the MC5's Wayne Kramer, Austin alt-country hero Alejandro Escovedo and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. "You meet these people just traveling," Malin says. "I was touring with Alejandro and we were in L.A., and there was Peter Buck. We started talking and he said he liked my stuff."
Right before the sessions opened, Malin had a chance encounter with another rock star: Dave Grohl, who was filming the Magic Shop episode of Sonic Highways when he and his band arrived at the historic Soho studio. "We were loading in gear while they were still mixing the track ['I Am a River']," remembers Malin, who recently sang "From a Buick 6" with Grohl at photographer Danny Clinch's book release party. "Some people can just sit back on their ass and some people take what they have and use it to show and teach and give respect to the history. [Grohl is] the man for that."
On New York Before the War, Malin does likewise. The album bursts at the seams with attitude-heavy anthems that pay homage to heroes the Replacements, the Clash and the Ramones. One track, "Oh Sheena," is a direct nod to the seminal Queens punk rockers. Regardless of the MC5 connection, the album succeeds in kicking out the jams.
"Jesse is a living link to the tradition from New York City that goes back to Frank Sinatra," says Kramer, who plays lead on the swaggering "Freeway." "There's a kind of urban style that came out of that city, and Jesse has style as opposed to fashion. There's an authenticity to his art and to who he is as a human being that is rare in the world of popular music."
Although the album revels in New York grit, it also contains a few subtle highlights. The aura of Paul Simon is felt on numerous tracks, including the "Me and Julio"-influenced "Addicted."
"I always loved the smoothness of his voice," says Malin. "With 'Addicted,' I wanted the Ramones meet Paul Simon — both sides of Queens Boulevard."
"The Year That I Was Born" is similarly propelled by a crisp guitar lead and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies. The lyrics address the grind of the road and the struggle to maintain relationships.
"This song is about meeting a girl who is younger and trying to find a way to relate, knowing it's a doomed situation." Malin explains. "My friends have been married, have kids and moved on to the middle class. And I'm here doing what I've been doing my whole life: writing the set list, getting the beer before the show, waiting for the fans to come. In a lot of ways so much changes, but so much is the same."