Don't Smoke

Mr. Isaac Allen

Horizon Music Group, 2010

http://www.mrisaacallen.com/

REVIEW BY: Jedediah Pressgrove

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/19/2011

I want to start by saying that this is best album cover and title of 2010. That shit is funny.

Anyway, people often compare vocalist/pianist Mr. Isaac Allen to Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen. Voice-wise, Cave is the best comparison. Cave and Allen have smoother voices than Waits and Cohen (excluding Waits’ earlier stuff, where he has a voice that’s not quite as low as Cave’s or Allen’s). As far as the songs go, I am definitely reminded of Waits’ first few albums at times, but Allen is his own artist when you get down to it.

The variety of characters that Allen presents in Don’t Smoke is impressive. Sure, common themes exist between a few songs, but Allen’s presentation is always different. For example, you could pretty much say “The Devil” and “The Mouse In My Head” are the same song thematically, but the former is bluesy, dark, and deliberate, whereas the latter is an upbeat jazz ditty.

“Daddy’s On Death Row” is the Big Song on the album, even though the back of the case incorrectly says “Saddle” is longer (the songs are good, so I forgive the multiple discrepancies between what the CD case says and what my player says). You might think that either Allen put more work into “Daddy’s On Death Row” or that it’s simply more emotionally resonant than the majority of the album. I’ll go with the latter. The song is sung from the perspective of a child for the most part and includes a tasteful two-minute jam. The story falters only once, right before the jam, when Allen switches to a second-person perspective and sings “You know the truth / But you are not told / Your momma’s a whore / And your daddy’s on death row.” The perspective change is abrupt and damages the pathos for me, but thankfully, the line after those lyrics (“And home is this mobile hole, hole, hole”) and Allen’s delivery are incredible. nbtc__dv_250

Other characters pull less at the heart but are nonetheless entertaining. The signature line in “Whalley Avenue” (“Looking for a bag of dope / Maybe a girl to choke”) brings to mind an interesting question: is the married protagonist a cheater with a fetish, or is he a murderer? My favorite character has to be the titular “Bernie Madoff,” a Wall Street man who doesn’t give a damn about those outside of his social class. How poignant given the disparity of wealth in the United States that drives so much of our national politics.

I haven’t said much about Allen’s band, which changes a good bit throughout the album. Backing vocalist Sara-Joy Liebig adds a lot to the proceedings, though vocalist Gwen Henderson is memorable on “Whalley Avenue.” Matt Oestreicher is an essential piece; in addition to playing the organ, synths, and some piano, he arranges a few of the songs, including “Daddy’s On Death Row.” Other standouts include Dick Neal and Jerry Giamo, whose mandolin and electric guitar give a distinctive country flavor to “Saddle,” respectively. But really, there is something to like about all of these musicians, and it says something that both producers, Vic Steffens and Oestreicher, add their own instrumentation.

I’ll admit it took me a while to appreciate what Don’t Smoke has to offer. “The Mouse In My Head” is the only song I liked immediately. But more listening showed me Mr. Isaac Allen is the real deal, and given that he’s just in his mid-twenties, I expect to hear more from him.

Rating: A-

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© 2011 Jedediah Pressgrove and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Horizon Music Group, and is used for informational purposes only.