Color This Your Favorite Jackie Allen Album
Milwaukee-born singer Jackie Allen brings to mind a bramble bush in autumn on her new album My Favorite Color. You hear a delicate balance of songs imbued with painful confession, as if her voice carries the slight tinge of spiritual bloodletting. It’s probably her best album to date.
She has ripened into a mature artistic interpreter, without losing the youthful elan that always gave her a special power. Circumstances compelled her to give this record a full six years in the making. Time was on her side.
The core of the album is a sequence of three extraordinary songs, beginning with the George Gershwin masterpiece “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy & Bess.
Allen dips into mournful minor-key mode like a woman bereft. Her notes seem to melt in abject sorrow, at once strange and gorgeous. This emotional gravity allows her to ride the difficult tonality–a classic case of form following function–ably framed by bassist Hans Sturm’s arco solo, which recalls the magnificence of Richard Davis. “Gone” feels like spiritual desolation and yet it holds out for “the journey to the promised land.”
Then Allen begins to reflect, in the ensuing “Blame it on My Youth,” an ode to the reckless heart and to growth that life might afford. Here, and elsewhere, her elastic phrasing and warm texture compares to Tony Bennett at his best. She plumbs whole notes like someone slowly discovering the inside of her soul. Therein lies plenty: the sense of lost innocence, bruised hope, confusion, redemption. “I was like a broken toy, you preferred to throw away… So don’t blame it on my heart, blame it on my youth.”
The third of this stunning threesome is the most improbable and startling, and perhaps the crux of the matter, for the risks taken, the human courage found in facing life’s worst. This is Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic cauldron “Manic-Depression.”
Allen turns the vintage electronica into a plugged-in Miles Davis aura, but retains her own sense of psychological colors and fragmentation. Guitarist John Moulder puts his own twist on the Hendrix legacy, which is a brand of jazz on his own terms, finding its own truths. Throughout the record, the accompanists play as one, and as originals. Pianist Ben Lewis uses sonic space like a wizard on “Youth” and does a slow-motion sashay on “Sleepin’ Bee,” like a droll comic.
Allen’s favorite color seems to be blue, yet this is a multi-hued recording and hardly devoid of verve or fun. Her sensibility is obvious in “Born to be Blue” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” but she’s never pushy. Doing a sparkling Burt Bacharach song like “A House is not a Home” is another stroke of brilliance. For all its tenderness, her interpretation brims with the power of art and, in this recording, the power of the blues. That humble genre is often underestimated, but Allen proves that the power of the blues comes in many of her favorite hues.
Visit her website for Allen’s upcoming tour schedule and a video of Allen teaching NPR’s Garrison Keillor how to sing a torch song.
Album cover photo courtesy Matt Ellwood.
Review originally published at Culture Currents (Vernaculars Speak)