I always marvel at the new artists that materialize in New Jersey. I have been on the scene since 1980 and I have seen a lot of talent come and go, but I never seem to catch a lot of it as it sneaks up on me. However, that is part of the fun. Discovering new music is akin to finding a cache of hidden whiskey or digging up a tin canister full of twenty-dollar bills. Trust me, I have found both of those. Kevin John Allen is a Shoreworld artist that resides in that same strange, magical category with his new CD, Dark Songs Written On Black Guitars.
To be honest, I do not even know where this person came from. Hailing from strange parts unknown, Mr. Allen materialized with the oceanfront mist one day and has been here ever since. Dark Songs Written On Black Guitars features some great local artists and seasoned players in their own right. Comprised of Bo Pezzulo on guitar, John Mulrenan on bass and keys, Raymond Sorrentino on guitars, Cat Cosentino, Emily Grove, Jimmy Sickels and so many more on backing vocals, KJA and friends unveil a family sized style of music that is both ambient in attitude, and thematically wild at heart in delivery.
The best recent quote emailed to me describing Allen came from fellow guitarist and songwriter Freddie Fry who said, “Kevin John Allen is part Leonard Cohen, part Stan Ridgway and all Brook Benton.” He could not be closer to the truth. Kevin John Allen’s focal point is his voice. Deep, dark and custom made for telling tales, he takes his time as he lays his complex, compositional madness in a crooked row. The disc has a whopping eighteen tunes and while a bit long for my taste, I cannot say there was much that put me off. I took a listen and came up with several important highlights from Dark Songs Written On Black Guitars.
Kevin’s best known song, and the star of this CD is “Dreamland,” a Sebastian Cabot tinged odyssey featuring music box keyboards, shuffled drums and shimmering guitars that warble behind Allen’s deep, baritone voice. I could easily see this song behind the next David Lynch film, pretty much as Chris Isaak did on Wild At Heart.
“Dancing On Rainbows” brings forth recollections of Lennon’s Mind Games and anything Bowie did in the 70s with its Jeff Baxter/George Harrison-styled guitar work and spaced-out, melodic urgency. Organs wash carousel-coated imagery down on top of this sleepwalking, moonlit waltz to a different world.
“Trail Of Tears” is a dusty, Tex-Mex jewel that features the traditional Opryland harmonies of Allen and Barbara McGuire, as well as the six-string work of Allen, Boomer Castleman and Sam Cooper. Beautifully done, the song paints a picture of passion and broken hearts. Isolation and attraction battle with conscience and duty as the band beckons you in with its breezy, south of the border delivery. Jimmy Buffett should snag this song for his Parrot-heads.
I like the fact that Kevin John Allen does not sugarcoat his “betrayal portrayal” behind some embarrassing commercial progression and feel-good storybook ending. “Angry Song” is a sparse and desolate look at despair, and the anguish it creates. Allen aims, and fires off the line, “Gonna a find somebody new, wipe away the stink of you. Forget the shit you put me through, won’t pass this way again.” The understated and somber piano work of John Mulrenan shadows Allen’s gut-punched lyrical confessions with mourning dove isolation. This song contains the gravel-laden spirit of Johnny Cash’s American IV and is one of the top five cuts on the CD.
The barbecued blues flavor of “99 Weeks” fires up into a sweat drenched, smoke-filled tale of the worker with the boot on his neck and the dogs barking at his back. Featuring the multi-talented Mulrenan on guitar, keys, drums, bass and just about everything else, Kevin John Allen uses his bourbon-drenched tone to drive his lyrical theme straight through your Marlboro-hazed, stupor. Dynamic in level, this bouncy track does not need to scream to make its presence felt. It is a tap on the shoulder instead of a punch in the mouth and it works well.
The minor key credo of “Don’t Cry” is all about the nonsensical direction of war and the sacrifices of the faceless. Short at 1:34, it is a poignant statement for those that have a conscience about our penchant for solving the world’s problems with bullets. The desolate accompaniment of Mulrenan’s keyboard work brings recollections of Springsteen’s great, melancholy song, “Valentine’s Day” off Tunnel Of Love.
“Fallen Hero” continues the theme of the wars wake. Allen’s booming voice is a natural for this type of patriotic fare. The struggle of others is the theme here and the selfless sacrifices that keep us free. The fiddle work of Amy Forsyth drives the feeling home with her passionate and communicative playing. Beautiful and carried with dignity, “Fallen Hero” keeps our long gone brothers and sisters immortal.
I really love the fact that Allen does not reach for anything stock on this record. He has put a mountain of thought into his compositional puzzle work and it pays off. Songs such as “Peg Leg Johnny,” co-written with Bo Pezzulo, come out of the gate with a Jim Croce strut and the dark and shady gristle of Tom Waits and Big Joe Murphy. Walter Becker styled bends slink across stereo-panned brilliance as Allen shuffles down the avenue. Acoustics dart in and out of organs and percussive money shots like minnows dodging snapping turtles in the creek.
“Old Friend” is a booming, accidental tribute to Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash. This song is a sauntering journey through this fast-forward life and the things that really matter. As Allen says, “The only thing worse than failure is to die wondering, why didn’t I?”
“Old Black Car” rumbles out of the drive with the gritty vibe of “Baby Please Don’t Go” as done by the 60s band, Them. Dark and dangerous, “Old Black Car” screeches down the single lane road to the crossroads at midnight.
Including two bonus tracks, the 18-track disc is probably one of the most original albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this year. The production is humble and the talent in vast. Compositionally, Dark Songs Written On Black Guitars is a winding journey through the human condition and all of the reactions that causes. If I had one gripe about this CD, it would be that Allen unloaded too many gems on one release. A small gripe considering that there is not a bad song among the lot and he probably has another twenty lined up.
If you are looking for thought provoking baritone voiced action, down home countrified Americana delivery and honesty, Kevin John Allen is the man to check out. Allen will be performing tonight in Red Bank at Buona Sera. Buona Sera is located on Maple Ave in Red Bank. His CD is available for sale over at jerseycowboyz.com.