Former glam-rocker Jesse Malin’s 2003 solo debut not only offered proof that he could make it as a singer-songwriter — it was the best thing he’d put out. No longer was he getting by on swagger, as he had with D Generation, the New York Dolls–aping act he helmed in the ’90s. On The Fine Art of Self Destruction (Artemis), Malin, with help from friend and producer Ryan Adams, emerged as a wised-up punk with a gift for wringing beauty from the tragic. Highlights abounded: the matter-of-factly heartbreaking “Almost Grown”; the exhilarating, rickety Coney Island ride “Wendy”; the slow-burning “Brooklyn,” where Adams’s gritty-yet-elegant backdrop — a slow build from piano and skeletal acoustic guitar to a whirlwind of drums and feedback behind Malin’s snarling vocals — matched that borough’s essence to a tee.
Adams’s failure to return for the follow-up, The Heat (Artemis, 2004), might have been cause for concern. But Malin, producing himself, delivered a more mature and well-rounded batch of songs than he had on his debut. Yes, there were flaws (the dull raps on opener “Mona Lisa,” the genteel choruses on “Since You’re in Love”), but The Heat also soared (the alternately moody and uplifting “Silver Manhattan,” the candid, big-hearted “Indian Summer”).
Recorded in the summer and fall of 2006 in his new home of Los Angeles, Malin’s third album — which he’ll support with an appearance at T.T. the Bear’s this Wednesday — is his first in three years. The advance word for Glitter in the Gutter (Adeline) hyped its small boatload of guest appearances: Adams, Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Jakob Dylan. This was enough to raise suspicions — any more than two guests screams overcompensation, no? Actual listening reveals that there are some good cuts, but whereas The Heat only flirted with a more accessible sound, Glitter — produced by former Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano with Eddie Wohl — sounds as if it had been through the wash.
Take the roots-rock opener, “Don’t Let Them Take You Down (Beautiful Day!)”: it tries hard to make a bold impression in the first verse, but the effect is undercut as it careers forward on the back of a slick, inflated chorus during which Malin insists, post-Bono, “It’s a beautiful day!” “In the Modern World” is similarly dreadful, with its unrelenting stadium-sized guitars. Things do pick up near the end when the brunt of the band drops out and Malin gets to lead a lively sing-along of the chorus over the drums. It’s enough to make you wonder how this album might have fared if he’d given it more gutter and less glitter.
The dreamy, enjoyable “Tomorrow Tonight” revisits a past steeped in movies and punk rock. “Broken Radio,” Malin’s tribute to his late mother, matches Springsteen’s rusty voice with his own Neil Young warble. On the best cut, “Love Streams,” the singer seems fed up with his new LA digs and intent on getting back home (“Heading back where I come from/Beyond the valley and the neon sun”). The choruses are oversized, but in this case they feel earned.
Could Glitter have benefitted from the stripped-down treatment Ryan Adams gave The Fine Art of Self Destruction? Certainly “In the Modern World” would have been the better for it. And I’d be curious to hear a rougher take on the feisty “Prisoners of Paradise” — which, despite being produced to the point of exhaustion, still manages to thrill in the choruses. Perhaps Malin should consider holing up with Adams in a dive studio somewhere in NYC for the next record, one that the rest of his talented, big-named friends won’t be able to find.
JESSE MALIN | T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline St, Cambridge | July 18 | 617.492.BEAR