Amy Power! …Comments on Amy Allison’s Sheffield Streets. Urban Myth Recording Collective, 2009. Guest appearances by Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin and Mose Allison. Released June 23, 2009.
I can’t say anything about Amy Allison without confessing that I have been a fan of hers since circa 1990 when I first heard her on WFMU’s Live Music Faucet hosted by Williamsburg’s man-about-town Nick Hill. What I heard from the get-go, was flat-out honest lyric poetry that had me in it’s grip from second one. There has never been any suspended disbelief, any leap to reach into “Amy’s world” for me. My relationship with Amy Allison, and I’m sure others of her fans feel the same, transcends genre in the way that Peter Bagge’s comic books transcend comics or various fanzines transcend writing. She and they are simply “my peeps”, if not part of my inner workings. From The Maudlin Years on, her seemingly offhanded, unpretentious, sweet songcraft have elicited immediate, pleasing responses through these here ears.
Needless to say, I’ve been enjoying this latest Amy Allison effort. Like Amy, her voice and all, it’s completely idiosyncratic. First of all: who writes an album titled Sheffield Streets? Streets of Laredo, London Calling, New York, New York, sure… But Sheffield? Photos by Amy on the CD case include snaps of Ms. Pac-man cupcakes and cheap snow shovels available at finer hardware stores in the apparent city of shopkeepers (to paraphrase the Gram Parker song), as well as an out-of-focus girl-yank stomping about the rain in an orange prom dress and combat boots.
As at least a second generation musician (daughter of Mose Allison), her musical vocabulary is broad, covering her main base Country and Western, American songbook, Jazz, post-Dylan folk. She is vaguely more country than the other styles, in my opinion, but doesn’t fit neatly within Country’s constricting boundaries. Her treatment of lyric and emotional tone are deceptively simple, with an apparent moral, like country, but tricky and contradictory, unlike much of country music, and one might stretch and say closer to the irony in quicker-witted punk.
This is the most theatrical (specifically vaudevillian) album to date for Ms. Allison. Each song is a 3 minute one-act skit, with its own individual texture.
The title song has an up-tempo, feel-good melody on the surface. The lyrics are a travelogue, a list of Sheffield architectural and topographical landmarks, alliterating the foreignness of the names themselves with an American provincial tone, heavily nasal and all; and briefly, a mention of the loneliness of a traveller. The crowning comedic or perhaps even sardonic touch is the horn fanfare added ever so subtly. America doesn’t have the whole royalty-Queen thing. The ironic horns just say it all. They both fit smoothly into the mild poppiness of the song, and give that little vaudeville twist: “Hail the Queen!” From another angle, it almost even recalls Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. Overall, I walk away from the song pensively questioning the song’s narrative: What really happened in that epiphany on a park bench somewhere in that rainy, British town, where the American girl scribbled this song in a diary. But within the paradigm of painting a picture versus handing the listener the brushes, this is the point where the brushes are handed to the listener.
The Needle Skips is classic Allison wit. It recalls psychodynamic-therapy jargon about repeated behavior patterns that may or may not occur in repeated, failed romances (please note, the author of this post would like to state that this is in no way mirrors his own love life!). The Maynard Ferguson-to-Borscht-belt horn and reed section, combined with the metaphor of a dated-now-retro technology, gives the song a timeless epigram quality: The moral is that romance has always been artifice and doomed to fail from the notion’s inception. Of course, that said, it’s almost too coherent a song for Ms. Allison’s talent, however sweet the tone.
Monsters of the Id reveals I’m not so far off on my psycho-therapy reference, but more important is about as strong a political (as opposed to personal) statement as is possible in the Amy Allison Oeuvres. The lyrics, if put to paper, sans music, are those of an angry young (wo)man. The contrasting soft, loungey tone of the melody and arrangement which includes a breathy sax, around the placement of the angry young man himself, Elvis Costello, in that diary-reciting, mournful tone, is simply great casting in a great setting. Seems to be Ms. Allison’s stab at the oil-greedy Bushies and their “deputized maniacs” (my paraphrase), a reaction to the type of oh-too-easy (to see through) patriotism that is truly the last refuge of scoundrels; the type that blossomed out of control after 9-11, much to the chagrin of most New Yorkers. This I think was the most sophisticated, mature song on the album.
Why Must It Be? is perhaps the most like the Amy Allison we all know: once again, directly referring to love as a delusion from the beginning, as if a dysfunctional addiction. I’m not sure if I completely go with the horns on this one, but perhaps just personal taste.
Everybody Ought to Know is my favorite song on the album, just because it’s flat-out good to listen to. Using the most Country-Western wing of X, Dave Alvin, the duet falls neatly into the 3-minute skit category. More specifically, it recalls Grand Ole Opry skits, Tammy & George, Johnny & June, etc. Great stuff. A wink and a nod to the truth that is often lied about in the sad, losers’ game of love. (Hand me a tissue!)
So enough superlatives. There are several other songs on this album that could bear equal weight in this post, but alas, I think I’ve said what I meant to say regarding Ms. Allison and her latest venture. Do give Sheffield Streets several listens over time. These songs will get under your skin in a pleasing, tingling sort of way. A sort of, “oh, yeah, that’s right,” kind of recognition. And anytime you see she is playing, do go have a listen. Here are some links: