CD Review: Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets
Her best album. Amy Allison in many ways is the quintessential cult artist, possessed of a fan base that borders on rabid and an equally avid following among her fellow musicians, even if she never broke through to a mass audience. Which is somewhat mystifying until you consider the climate of the music business she grew up in (her now out-of-print albums with her 90s indie rock band Parlor James remain locked in a Warner warehouse somewhere). Allison already has a couple of genuine classic country albums to her credit, her debut The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl. This one is both musically and lyrically richer and considerably more diverse, ranging from characteristically gemlike, tersely metaphorical country songs to jangly pop to saloon jazz (including a duet with Elvis Costello on her dad Mose Allison’s wry, brooding classic Monsters of the Id, with the Sage himself on piano) And her voice has never sounded better – like all the best song stylists, she’s able to say more in a minute inflection than Kelly Clarkson could relate in an entire box set. Sheffield Streets is also notable for its purist sonics, producer and former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington imbuing it with the warm feel of a 70s vinyl record.
The title track (and its charming video) effectively captures a bittersweetness and yet a fearlessness, as happens to anyone with a sense of adventure caught in a drizzle on unfamiliar turf: “I found a bar and curled up like a cat/I wrote a song on a beer mat.” The gently matter-of-fact, commonsensical second cut, Calla Lily takes existential angst and replaces it with a striking logic and purposefulness. The Needle Skips is vintage Amy Allison, with its vividly metaphorical oldtimey feel: “It’s funny how we lived so many moments, in the minutes of a song that came and went,” Allison reminding that it’s the scratches on the album that give it character.
I Wrote a Song About You sardonically looks at rejection as a self-fulfilling prophecy, set to a swaying country backbeat. A duet with Dave Alvin on an older song, Everybody Ought to Know actually doesn’t work as a duet (Allison realized that with considerable amusement after recording it), but both singers are at the top of their game as honktonk crooners. Hate at First Sight is a juvenile delinquent take on Brill Building pop; Come, Sweet Evening is a flat-out gorgeous nocturne, welcoming the darkness rather than shying away. The single best cut on the album is Dream World, both its bruised, exhausted protagonist and the bums on the street outside looking for escape in dreams, Allison taking care to wish those less fortunate a similar good night. The album winds up with another equally brilliant number, Mardi Gras Moon, its narrator popping pills and drinking: “I hear the distant music of the band/I’m losing all the feeling in my hands,” wishing she hadn’t made the trip to New Orleans only to be jilted. Rich with layers of meaning, shades of emotion and understatedly beautiful playing, this is a classic. Let’s see – for Amy Allison, that makes three. She plays the cd release show for Sheffield Streets at Banjo Jim’s on July 19 at 7 PM