Isaac Allen,
Mr. Isaac Allen Don't Smoke
(Horizon Music, 2010)

Antsy McClain & the Trailer Park Troubadours,
Heroes Last Forever: The Sun Studio Sessions
(DPR, 2011)

In the crowd of singer-songwriter CDs that show up in a reviewer's mail, a very few stand out. What these two discs have is common is precisely that, if not a whole lot else.

It says here that Isaac Allen is in his mid-20s, something I would never have suspected simply from listening to him. In fact, I had assumed that he was a decade or two older. Mr. Isaac Allen Don't Smoke is so down-hearted, conjuring up such plausibly rendered excess and tragedy, that one can scarcely believe it could be a young man's creation. On the back cover the New Haven-based Allen alludes wryly to "in-depth field research," which accompanying promotional materials elaborate upon. Let us say that, if true, Allen has had an unusually dramatic short time on this earth.

From a purely musical perspective, one soon notices on-his-sleeve influences, starting with Tom Waits -- who's now become what Bob Dylan was to a previous generation of singer-songwriters -- and encompassing Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Mose Allison, John Lee Hooker and even (at least arguably) Greg Brown. Like most of the just-mentioned, he fuses not entirely unrelated American vernacular genres. He considers himself a bluesman, and blues is certainly a presence; so, too, are jazz, r&b, rock, folk-rock and pre-rock pop. His preferred instrument is the piano, and his singing is Waits-ish, a half-swallowed growl in service to tales of urban losers, drifters, lunatics and criminals. The sort of good cheer one experiences in substance-unfueled consciousness is in little evidence, but nothing gets quite so harrowing as "Daddy's on Death Row."

Either in spite or because of its manifest stylistic references, this is a fine record. Clearly a talent to watch, Allen is already an exceptional performer and writer. One anticipates that he will become even more so as he finds his own voice.

Antsy McClain & the Trailer Park Troubadours, who work out of California, stand on the opposite coast both geographically and stylistically. Mostly, theirs is a light-hearted roots rock, which means there are country and blues touches to McClain's songs. "In Between the Goodbye & the Getting Over You" resembles something Johnny Cash could have recorded in his own days at Memphis' Sun Studio. An even more explicit nod to classic rockabilly is a resurrection of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," with a strong, non-imitative vocal by Eddie's nephew Bobby Cochran.

The most memorable cuts, however, speak in whimsical voices but relate notably dissimilar narratives. One is "The Ballad of Skippy & Rover," about two dogs who, fed up with the ways of humans ("they've heard 'who's a good dog' for the last darn time"), take to the road for the adventurous life ("when they roll into town the ladies rave and rant"). In the wrong hands, this would be just dumb, but here the sly charms abound. Besides, I've always liked dogs.

"John Lennon as an Old Man" meditates, but not depressingly, on what might have been. It's a subject that has crossed my own mind, and probably the minds of many others of Lennon's generation, who are still not entirely recovered from his shocking and awful demise. What would he have done if he had lived? What would he have become in his later years? McClain imagines him as a happy, ordinary old guy who looks back fondly and faces inevitable death with equanimity. It's a lovely song.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 April 2011

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