Where The Sunshine Bit You

Jim Allen

Hardcover Records, 2019

http://jimallen.bandcamp.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/21/2019

Artists looking for an effective approach for their one-sheets, the little promotional essays you typically tuck in with the CDs you send out for review, could do a lot worse than to emulate Jim Allen’s. “I’m not trying to bullshit anybody,” he opens. “I haven’t even adopted a phony third-person narrative to make you think there’s someone else writing this. It’s just me, Jim Allen.”

See now, was that so hard?

This is Allen’s third solo album, the first two having appeared in 1996 and 2003. He spent the intervening years making records with a rock band called Lazy Lions and a country band called The Ramblin’ Kind, and starting a family. The impetus for a new solo album was simple, he says: “it was time.” The album was cut live in the studio in two days with “no overdubs, no separation, not even any headphones—everything bleeding into everything, just like nature intended.”

The main players on Where The Sunshine Bit You include Steve Goulding (drums, The Mekons & Graham Parker & The Rumour), Joanna Sternberg (stand-up bass and harmony vocals, solo artist signed to Conor Oberst’s Team Love label), and Matt Applebaum (guitar, NYC’s jazz scene). Allen is once again refreshingly direct in describing the noise they make together: “reviewers’ most frequent comparisons were Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.”

As they should be; this is clever, philosophical, often dark material that is technically singer-songwriter, inasmuch as Allen writes and sings everything you hear, though calling what he does up front “singing” can feel like a stretch at times. Allen invokes these songs like incantations, his basso profundo voice treading a path that sometimes seems to owe as much to Orson Welles as Bob Dylan, though Cohen and Waits remain the clearest points of comparison.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Opener “All The Way Down The Line” sets the tone with a rumbly, honky-tonk inflected number that Allen decorates with couplet after couplet of mysterious, surreal narrative. “The midnight mist come and custom fit you / Let the moonlight soothe where the sunshine bit you,” he sings, dropping you into an alternate universe that’s part B-movie (there’s a werewolf) and part existential philosophy. After the somber ballad “The Day After Tomorrow,” Allen’s keen sense of the macabre comes to the forefront again with “Wedding Of The Dead,” a tight, catchy number about cavorting zombies that would make George Romero smile.

“You think I’m waving hello / When I’m trying to show /That I’m drowning / Is it any wonder / I’m going under?” sings Allen in the short, punchy “Going Under,” the first moment where I caught yet another point of reference: Jimmy Buffett. There aren’t any songs about alcoholic beach bums here, but there is a familiar thread of warmly self-deprecating humor that runs through several of these songs, in particular the subsequent “What I Deserve.”

The latter delivers one sharp observation after another over a gentle country-rock backing, notably “Light is just the absence of the darkness,” “Every villain dies believing he’s a hero,” and “Singing is a sinner’s way of praying,” before concluding with “I only hope that God’s grading on a curve.” The sense of a shambling philosopher let loose near closing time at the bar only grows with “Look Out Below” and “Waiting For Lydia.”

Allen’s songs can be deceptively simple at times in their conception and execution, feeling like raw frames for the words and ideas that lie at their center, but on numbers like “Carolyn Jones” he elevates them with clever observations and rich atmospherics. In the final quarter, “Leave It To Uncle Henry” offers an affectionate portrait of the proverbial “fun” uncle; “Nightingale” goes full Cohen, stripping down to just Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar and Allen’s solemn intonations; and he closes on a up note with the full band delivering the robust folky foot-tapper “High.”

The test of any singer-songwriter is, do they have something worthwhile to say? Do their songs draw you in, tell an engaging story, and/or offer some kind of fresh insight about life in this world? Allen’s vision is iconoclastic, to be sure, but the songs he crafts from it are smart, insightful, and utterly authentic, and as with his one-sheet, that authenticity makes all the difference.

Rating: B

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