I knew I was in for a darksiding good time when Isaac Allen inscribed "The songs I wrote for this album do not focus on the merrier side of things" on the reverse liner of Don't Smoke. Yessiree, Bob, I'm presently in no mood whatsoever for bullshit hearts and flowers as the country flounders and sinks in a conflagration of conservative criminality (a redundancy, no?), so a bit of fuss and bother was precisely what I expected to see on the menu. In that, fellow discontented, we get a Three Penny, lower East Side, Waitsian, noir Randy Newman tour of what is and what should perhaps one day be, the latter if only by inference, intimation, and through a swamp. Timely? Well, the seventh cut is titled Bernie Madoff, a paean to the sort of reptiles capitalism's so skilled in producing, just one creature among many. Getting the idea here? This ain't Lawrence Welk.
Allen recruited a way-the-hell cool shifting ensemble of jazzsters as laconic as he, gents and ladies who know how to dress his scenery and then paint the borders beyond. Don't Smoke in fact comes off as a scene-by-scene slinkily dangerous stage presentation, the sort of mise en tableau that gets the rabble started, breeds discontent, and raises awareness amid fog and grime. Isaac plays piano and sings but there's a strange uniqueness to his plaints. They're mannered but morose, genteel but knowledgeable of panthers, poetic and remonstrative, sung before the listener with a subterranean David Johanssen thickness that beguiles and entraps.
The instrumental progression in the later segment of Daddy's on Death Row is therefore unexpected but quietly dramatic, Matt Ostreicher's arrangements, appearing throughout Smoke, an expanding canvas surrounding Hell's Kitchen. Relief is provided in the scoobly-op of Whalley Avenue…or is it? After all, the narrator is "on Whalley / Looking for a bag of dope / Maybe a girl to choke / Oh just anything—anything I need". Disquieting, but, man, hip plus and then some, and here's the secret: Allen's been there. His early life was spent first in the U.S. then in Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore with all the acquaintance with poverty that implies. As his family decayed from locale to locale, he took to demon alcohol far earlier than any should, thence to reformatories, institutions, finally adulthood and the peak of the crisis, years sustained but here resolved in art of a higher order, a saturninely elegant record of introspection, resignation, reality, and resurrection.
Does an artist need to acquaint himself with torture and misery in order to craft something truly profound? Yes, I think so, and this back alley cabaret is steeped in that verity, literate and wise, sympathetic, a torn heart bleeding just below clenched teeth set in a dark grin acknowledging man as a depraved beast…but a reprobate capable of his own salvation, a muck-dweller who had better acknowledge untidy roots in darkness before he can ever hope to see the light. Every inch here is an unflinching mural to that and, once listened to, will sit in the corner and glower until you understand.
Don't, by the way, be put off by the seeming affectation of the 'Mr.' in his stage title; it hides a fleering smirk. One hint: in the liner shot to an album titled Don't Smoke, Allen is of course very pointedly huffing away at a cigarette and could very well be caressing those ebonies and ivories in a whorehouse.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2011, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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