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CD REVIEW: Shades Of The Prison House by Anthony D'Amato

By Gary Wien

Rating 4 stars (out of 4)

I once read that no matter how old we are we will always write with the point of view that we had when we were 25. If that's true then Anthony D'Amato will have a long and amazing career because he gets the world better now than most people will ever know and he's not even close to 25 yet.

Anthony released the brilliant CD, "Shades of the Prison House" over the summer. This is truly the work of an artist coming into his own. Recorded in a dorm room at Princeton University, the CD is full of incredibly memorable and insightful lines like "I love you now, but I doubt that I always will" and "was that a shooting star that left such an ugly scar across the sky." The songs feature lyrics which blend poetry with catchy folk-rock guitar. The music has more of an indie/Conor Oberst vibe than a Greenwich Village/Dylan vibe. This is modern folk rock at its best. In fact, it's been nearly five years or so since the last album to come across my path to hit me so hard. "Shades of the Prison House" has been in my iPod ever since the first listen and I doubt it'll leave anytime soon.

With this disc Anthony joins the upper echelon of songwriters from New Jersey; a list that includes names like Val Emmich, Keith Monacchio, and Rick Barry - all of whom wrote masterful tunes before they turned 25 as well, so maybe there is something to that premise after all.

I've always hated trying to describe music and comparing who an artist sounds like, thankfully with records like this one you can let the lyrics do the talking for you. If you are a fan of intelligent lyrics, brilliant imagery, and find yourself getting lost in the tunes of artists like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, or Conor Oberst than give this disc a spin on your iPod. You won't be disappointed.

The record kicks off with a wonderful little acoustic tune that instantly grabs your attention with the line, "Oh, what liars / young liars we've become." For some reason that line is the perfect way to start off this disc. The record isn't just a collection of tunes, but an entranceway into the mind of a young poet who has experienced life far beyond his years.

My favorite track on the disc is the absolutely beautiful "Skeleton Key". The imagery on this tune took me back to the first time I heard "I Know It's Over" by The Smiths. The song begins with Anthony singing the lines:


"Sometimes at night when the weather turns nice
I like to make my way home
Walk through the woods where they buried my friends
Dig up and dance with their bones"

On Anthony's previous records such as "East Avenue" and "The Ghost EP" his talent as a storyteller was already apparent. The difference on "Shades of the Prison House" is a remarkable leap in his ability to craft memorable hooks and choruses. "Skeleton Key" - the only song previously released by Anthony - is a good example of a chorus I found myself singing for days after the first listen. The words were instantly carved into my brain as great songs have a tendency to do. In a strange way, the song hits me like a classic Irish drinking song.

"So, I treat myself
like I'm going to hell
I keep turnin' the skeleton key.
I don't lose sleep
Over hearts I can't keep
I take what I want and I leave…
I slip out the back like a thief"

"Skeleton Key" has to be my favorite over all, but honestly the record doesn't contain a weak tune. Each song has what I like to call "killer" lines. Those are the ones every writer wishes they wrote themselves. The kind of line that makes you just stop, pay close attention, and raise your glass in admiration. It's rare when I think a disc contains killer lines in every song, and this one does

Here are just a few of the lines that stand out for me.

From -- "Ashes to Ashes"
"If hell is other people, I wonder what does that make us
Someday when we're older. You said our hearts would start to rust
‘Cause ashes lead to ashes, dust don't turn to dust

It's hard to tell just how you feel without my hands on you"

From - "NYC Song"
"I got pills to make me sleep and
I've got friends who grind them up for me
And they smil while they grind their teeth
And live in vivid dreams.
Hangin' on to a thin, think line
Consciousness in a cheap red wine
Well, I told you once, I told you twice
Swore by the light in your eyes tonight... New York



From -- "Whippoorwill"
"I love you now, but I doubt that I always will"


From - "So Down and So Out"
Call me a son, call me a son,
call me a son of a bitch for the things I said

From - "Hank Williams Tune"
"Let me crawl through the cracks in your window
I'll be the light of the moon
Let me die in the back of your Camaro
I'll be your Hank Williams Tune
Lay me down Sister of Mercy
You're such a hard heart of stone
Let me slip my hands into your pocket
I'll be your Leonard Cohen poem."

Many people along the Jersey Shore have known Anthony for years as a music journalist. In fact, he started writing for my website when he was probably just 14 or 15 years old. I could tell then that he had the love of music flowing through his veins and the will to make it in the industry. It's an interesting life being a music journalist, but it's not an easy one and it's certainly not for everyone. When I listen to "Shades of the Prison House" I always smile thinking that it's nice Anthony will have his own music to fall back on should the writing gig not work out! But somehow, I think he's going to be fine with whichever path he takes.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 09/02/2009

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