Today’s popular music is far from what I would consider easy to categorize. Styles drift into multiple genres and the public is as fickle about meaningful choices as a tornado is with geographical touchdown spots. Technological hardware and software breakthroughs have made pleasing that public as easy as clicking some silly sound effect buttons and tossing out 50 baited marketing hooks designed to catch anything and everything.
Today’s traditional songwriter has to compete with a new breed of “artist” that draws more and more from the superficial bag of production and marketing tricks than from anything real and honest. A perfect example is the new song by Robin Thicke. That’s what today’s artist is coming up with, “pilfered” music to hire lawyers by. Still, there are many that take chances and play music for more than just a soundtrack spot on some ridiculous reality show. They are the passionate composers who hold true to the art of taking musical chances and experiencing the pain and pleasure of self-growth outside of the Matrix.
Rachel Allyn is a New Jersey musician who follows that jagged, glorious path all the way to its merging point of destiny. Allyn’s roots soak in the timeless tradition of country music, but her overall body of work branches far into the world of rock and roll as she embraces the time-honored style of organic songwriting. Rachel quotes the simple but eloquent words of John Lennon when describing where she wants to go with her songwriting process. “You just write what you feel, even if you don’t know where it will take you.”
And that’s the central point for Allyn’s latest CD, Do It Yourself. Comprised of eight songs, Do It Yourself relies on character originality as Allyn winds along her road of surprise. With no preconceived arrangements or particular genre boundaries, her music dances between the worlds of alternative, singer-songwriter, and Nashville country. And while she unabashedly confesses to her use of influential heroes, Allyn takes that inspiration and loads it into her own distinct mechanism of open-ended identity.
The first track, “Restless Times (Call For Reckless Measures)” jumps out at you from the punchy, new wave direction of Elvis Costello before sliding into a Tennessee-inspired chorus. Hints of George Harrison fly throughout the track under the able slide work of guitarist Pat Severs as drummer Alan Bowers whips this attitude-laden rocker all the way across the finish line.
“Triggerman” is pure black leather in a smoke-filled, six-gun room. “Triggerman” goes from image-laden prose to a literal last chance plea for love as Allyn capitulates, “But now my safety’s disengaged and what’s past cannot be changed. Now you’ve got the ammunition to ensure my demolition. I can see your aim is true. Tell me, how can I get through.”
John Ginty’s (Robert Randolph And The Family Band) B3 magic whirls over the top as funked-up R&B electric guitar work stitches the backbone of this passionate confessional. Allyn has a distinct and powerful voice, and I can honestly say that she is a singer you won’t forget. Toned, addictive and full of head-turning character, she’s a head turner of the highest caliber.
Rachel’s combined influence marches in with the stately grace of a high plains drifter on “October.” Once again, she could have just turned this into a commercial ballad, but she used her compositional smarts, along with the excellent production skill of Warren Hibbert, to present this gem in a different light. The fiddle work of Larry Franklin waltzes this back porch, Saturday night dancer in on bluegrass wings as the accordion work of Ed Fritz sounds under the Bodhran work of Gregg Nardozza. “October” is one of the best songs on the disc.
Allyn’s old country roots shine on the disc namesake. “Do It Yourself” features a bevy of old-school picking and grinning and features Severs on banjo and Dobro, and Franklin and Hibbert on mandolins, slide guitars and more. Robert Kopec slaps acoustic bass while Bowers holds down a thick backbeat. Allyn’s choice of players fits her honed writing talent like a glove, and you can tell everyone is having a blast here. Background vocals come courtesy of Chris Burns, who clicks seamlessly with Allyn’s pristine pipes. Warm, 1970s country gold mixes with a blue collar, Tom Petty-styled chorus, making “Do It Yourself” a well-done deal.
“Lovely Lilly” brings recollections of the Beatles meet Kacey Musgraves in this casualty of love and lies. Special guest accordionist Joe Steinwand lays it down between the stalwart sounds of Franklin’s fiddle and Hibbert’s multi-string responsibilities. Rachel’s understanding of dynamics is completely refreshing, and she rides the crest of this dark ode to regret like a surfer in a tsunami.
Speaking of the Beatles, the next song on the CD is Allyn’s remake of “Dear Prudence” off of the infamous White Album. “Dear Prudence” is said to have been Lennon’s favorite Beatles song, and many have covered this Lennon ode to Prudence Farrow, actress Mia Farrow’s sister. When the Beatles went to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, she reportedly so intensely concentrated on meditation that she wouldn’t come out of her room. Lennon supposedly wrote this song for her as a way to get her to come out and socialize with the gang.
Allyn approaches her version cautiously, examining every possibility before attacking the compositional beast and branding it as her own. Once again, dynamics come into play here. You have to be careful when reprising a Beatles song and Allyn uses her homegrown rebel rousing moxie to get the job done. Reminiscent of something Alanis Morissette might do (ironically she also covered this song), Allyn’s voice is soprano rich and cynically aggressive at the same time. Bowers’ drop-dead Ringo beats push Hibbert’s springy resonator lines into the fray, mixing guitars, bass, drums and mandolins in a swirl of psychedelic, country-tinged sunshine.
“Ain’t No Fun” is a stripped down hillbilly jamboree that peels off yard after yard of chicken pickin’ runs, whirling meteorites of B3 organ and a melodic chorus that spells solid gold. Lyrical delivery rings charm-filled regret with lines such as, “Walk on down to town hall and legalize this fling. You thought she was the one, oh look what you’ve done.”
The middle-eight guitar work of Brent Mason sends visions of 18-wheeled truck stop cowboys blazing across our American minds. It should be noted that Mason is no stranger to being a badass, and has logged six-string time with Shania Twain, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. Rachel uses this springboard well, soaring high above the band in an effortless reach for harmonic perfection. Her choice of melody and ease of delivery leave me marveling at the fact that I’ve never known about her before.
Do It Yourself ends with the ethereal sounds of “Sweet Sunshower.” Fingerpicked acoustic guitars weave between smooth, intimate vocals and Cajon work courtesy of Mike Bowie. Lyrical brushstrokes paint portraits of Allyn’s imagination like a Remington. Wide open and personal at the same time, she pauses to usher in the dark-toned cello work of Szuhan Chuang-Tsay.
Rachel Allyn is an East Coast artist who stands “miles high” above the new country fluff that has more in common with Miley Cyrus than with anything genuine or original. If you dig the rock and roll sensibilities of Alanis Morissette or the hot country calls of Kacey Musgraves, you’re going to love Rachel Allyn.
For more information on Rachel Allyn and Do It Yourself, head over to rachelallyn.com.