With Leaving Atlanta, Gentleman Jesse convinces himself to stay

Power-pop songsmith rises above his hometown's dark side

Four long years have gone by since Gentleman Jesse Smith released his self-titled debut album in 2008. Back then, it was party time and his introductory salvo reinforced what the faces in the crowd already knew: Smith crafts one hell of a pop hook. By writing lean, mean, shotgun-style pop allegories, he blazed a beeline to a corner penthouse overlooking the garage-punk scene from whence he came.

The characters, scenarios, and feelings conjured in such songs as "Highland Crawler," "All I Need Tonight (Is You)," and "Put Your Hands Together" could be about your friends, your lovers, or complete strangers at parties and shows on any given night.

But what happens when the party's over and the man of the hour steps outside to find a cruel, cruel world where friends are dying, the economy is crashing, and Atlanta's "perceived" crime wave smacks him square in the face with a wooden table leg, leaving him with a broken nose and a sour taste for the city that weaned him?

Leaving Atlanta is the second album by Gentleman Jesse and His Men, and all of these events have left the consummate pop songsmith bruised and battered. As a result, the album culminates in a collection of dark, somewhat humbled songs that are all bound by the ruminations of a man who's lost some of the sparkle in his eye. But it's also an album that's all about perseverance, and refusing to give in to the darkness that surrounds him.

From the opening crash of "Eat Me Alive," it's clear that Mr. Smith isn't ready to pack his bags and leave town just yet. "It's as good a place as any to try to survive/so if you keep your head down, and push on through, you just might make it to the other side," he sings. This internal dialogue kicks off a 13-song justification for staying put, while retaining the hook-laden snaps that have defined his sound, particularly on such songs as "I'm Only Lonely (When I'm Around You)," "You Give Me Shivers," and the album's most evolved bit of songwriter fair, "Take It Easy on Me." His call-and-response vocals truly shine in "I'm A Mess (Without You)," further illustrating a mastery of form, eclipsed only by the album's content.

While Leaving Atlanta retains those tight pop tendencies, it's still fair to call it a straight up rock 'n' roll record. The Tom Petty-style mid-tempos hold the album together at a pace similar to what Smith delivered with the first record, if slightly slower. It's upbeat, but not quite the stuff of punk, which puts him in an interesting place alongside his Douchemaster Records labelmates. Amid the searing hardcore thrash of Predator, the hammy punk of the Barreracudas, and the manic bounce of King Louie and His Missing Monuments (who play harmonica on "Eat Me Alive" and "Rooting For the Underdog"), Gentleman Jesse stands out as the label's most sincere export. There's no denying that Smith has reached a higher level of style and sophistication with his songwriting, but he's a punk kid at the heart of it all, and his songs are still rooted in the same simple ethos.

However, there are a lot more key changes here, and really, the organ makes the biggest difference by filling in the spaces between notes. Milton Chapman's organ drones draw out sadness and create warmth in "I'm Only Lonely (When I'm Around You)" and "What Did I Do," fostering a distinct American sound.

Through it all, it's difficult to pick out any one obvious single. Unlike past releases, there is no "I Don't Want to Know (Where You Been Tonight)," or any other instant hits jumping off the record — although "Careful What You Wish For," "You Give Me Shivers," and "We Got to Get Out of Here" come close, embodying an emotional depth and a sense of growth that Smith hasn't shown in the past. Still, he embraces the anthemic strum and belting voice — for which he's best known — to stave off the darkness. This is where Leaving Atlanta gains its strength and shirks off the dark cloud that's hovered over him for so long — it's pop gone sincere, and channeled into a collection of feel-good songs for the worst of times.