What makes an indelible guitar riff?
It's not a new debate. "Best of" lists abound, arriving on, at the very least, a yearly basis, showing up online and in the pages of musician-specific publications like Guitar Player and mainstream monthlies like Rolling Stone alike. Most recently, Spinner.com published its own "Top 50" riffs of all time, including everything from Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to Chic's "Le Freak."
It's tough to argue with most of the choices that end up on these lists, but generally speaking, all seem to miss the point. Great riffs come from great songs, after all. A riff -- shorthand for "repeated motif" -- comes from the song's melody itself, and if at times a simply smoking guitar figure can pass for a song, ("Whole Lotta Love," anyone?) it's more often the case that a great song implies a great riff.
A quibble? I'm not so sure. Ask anyone who lived through the era of excessive riffage that was the '80s, when every six-string shredder with half an idea and a whole can of Aqua Net was doing his best to play fast enough to cover up the fact that no one in his band had the slightest idea how to write a song. (There are, of course, notable exceptions.)
Conversely, Jesse Malin does not appear to be a virtuoso guitar player by any stretch, but his songs boast insanely memorable riffs nonetheless. How is this possible? Well, from the beginning, it's likely that the simplest of motifs turned out to be the catchiest, particularly in rock 'n' roll. From "Louie Louie" and "All Day and All of the Night" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Alive," the overarching theme is, "This ain't exactly rocket science, folks. Or jazz either, for that matter."
So Malin -- who started his musical life as a punker with D-Generation before revealing himself to be a dyed-in-the-wool songwriter with the heart of an old-school rocker -- has forged great riffs from great songs, ones that owe an obvious debt to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, the Kinks, Joe Strummer, Lou Reed, the Ramones, the Replacements, and even Buffalo's own Willie Nile, creators of emotionally compelling songs from the simplest of raw materials, to a man.
Malin, who plays Mohawk Place with his band the St. Marks Social at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, has just released his fifth album, "Love It to Life," and it has been suggested in many quarters -- from customer comments on iTunes to the pages of the Washington Post -- that it may well be his best work yet.
Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the steamroller strength of the musical motifs underlying songs like "Burning the Bowery," "Lowlife in a Highrise" and "St. Mark's Sunrise." These songs would be memorable even if the listener paid no attention to the lyrics, or took no interest in the context suggested by the songs.
Malin has rooted this collection of tunes in a firmly established sense of place, however, and those who do peel away the music to reveal the text will be rewarded for their efforts.
Malin's setting for "Love It to Life" is one that has informed many a fantastic rock record, from Television's "Marquee Moon" to Springsteen's "The River," the Ramones' debut to Richard Hell & the Voidoids' "Blank Generation."
Yup, you guessed it -- the Big Apple.
Most of "Love It" details present-day New York City, in much the same way that Woody Allen's "Manhattan" was a love letter to a specific era in Manhattan life, and Willie Nile's "Streets of New York" detailed the rough-and-tumble realities and wide-screen dreams of East Village regulars as the 20th century became the 21st.
Speaking of Nile, a New Yorker for more than a quarter century by now, let's offer him the podium for a moment.
"Jesse is the real thing," Nile said earlier this week.
"He's one of the best songwriters and rockers on the planet today. His songs are hook-city -- deep, meaningful and streetwise beautiful, and his new band is as good as there is out there today, and that's no joke," he said.
"If you want to see great rock 'n' roll and have your faith renewed that it's still alive and kickin', go see Jesse and the boys. Tell 'em Willie sent you."
Be sure to get there early on Wednesday. Opening will be a vibrant new Buffalo band known as the Viva Noir. The group recently released "Damn the Architecture" on its own Full Rabbit Records.