On his solo albums, Jesse Malin sometimes sounds like he's struggling a bit, holding his rock & roll instincts in check as he delivers his more contemplative and introspective material. But Malin has given himself a bit more room to grant both sides of his musical personality their due on 2015's New York Before the War. The opening track "The Dreamers" is certainly the work of Serious Jesse, with its moody, middle-of-the-night piano and the distant, overheard chatter of electric guitars, but once "Addicted" kicks in, Malin loosens up a bit, with a thick acoustic guitar squaring off against sharp electric fills as he sings about the joy and pains of love gone wrong. Then Malin segues into the rowdy Stones-flavored swagger of "Turn Up the Mains," and if this (and what follows) is a longer way from D Generation than his previous albums, New York Before the War lets Malin combine the maturity of his more poetic material with the liberating energy of a good rock & roll tune, and he does both things admirably well here. "She's So Dangerous" and "Bar Life" are low-key and effective portraits of lost souls, and "The Year That I Was Born" and "Bent Up" are rootsy rockers with a heartfelt barroom feel, but it's when Malin and his crew turn up the amps on "Freeway" and "Oh Sheena" that he sounds the freest, and just as smart as he is on his "serious" numbers but with a tough edge that speaks to the heart, the soul, and the brain. New York Before the War isn't quite a full-on rock & roll album, but it comes close enough that Malin has more space to move around than on his more subdued solo works, and he sounds energized and eloquent on these 13 tunes.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming