Brilliant Dark Folk-Rock and Americana Duets from Amy Allison and David Scott
Amy Allison owns a devoted cult following since her days as arguably the best of the alt-country tunesmiths of the 90s. But in addition to her elegant, wickedly literate retro honkytonk and C&W songwriting, she also released a small handful of ep’s during that decade with her rock project Parlor James with Ryan Hedgecock. Since then she’s branched out in several different directions, from janglerock to jazz, with equally compelling results. Her new album Turn Like the World Does with Pearlfishers bandleader David Scott is like Parlor James, but better. Scott and Allison take turns on lead vocals and harmonize a lot: as brilliant and individualistic a song stylist as Allison was twenty years ago, she’s even more nuanced and poignantly affecting now. This is one dark album, and it’s one of the best of the last several months.
Most of the songs are co-writes. The album ends with a Parlor James song, Noblesse, a creepy, surreal Appalachian ballad of sorts, Allison allusively recounting the story of a guileless traveler who wanders into this attractively named but dangerous town. Scott, who’s a one-man band here, playing all sorts of guitars, keyboards and bass, brings a couple of earlier co-writes: Lake Children, a vividly ghostly Britfolk-flavored ballad, and Sylvia Dear, a rustic, vaudeville-tinged World’s Fair scenario which might or might not be be about a serial killer squiring his prey.
The Maiden in the Trees has the feel of a brisk Elvis Costello take on folk-rock, while The Sea Is Singing captures an unexpectedly happy oceanfront milieu. But it’s the dark stuff that resonates the most. Scott takes the lead vocals on the album’s tensely syncopated opening track, When You Know That It’s Over: he can’t sleep so he gets drunk instead, ends up getting into a fight over what somebody says about him and the woman who he at least thinks for the present is his girlfriend. It’s a cruel twist on a familiar tale.
Allison’s wounded, hushed vocals on the moody If You Go I’ll Melt, with its shadowy, oldtime Appalachian feel, may be her best on the album. The two duet on Will This Be My Summer of Love, which blends jaunty 80s rock and 70s Britfolk: the way Allison’s voice leaps and dives over changes she’d never write herself is just plain delightful, even as the song’s angst-ridden narrator dreams longingly but bitterly, how she’d like at least a chance to “turn like the world does, crash and burn like the world does.”
Paper Lifetime Guarantees, another duet, is a throwback to Allison’s best C&W songs, a morose, haunting litany of paperwork littered with bittersweet memories. The Way You Remember Things, an electric rock song, takes a vengeful look at a broken relationship from the point of view of both participants: it’s Allison at her aphoristic best, blackly amusing but just as poignant, especially when it comes to the jilted woman’s side of the story. And the most haunting of all the tracks might be Coming Up the River, a brief, imagistic, somewhat Celtic-inflected narrative that could be about the Civil War or more recent but equally grim events. Look for this one high on the list of the year’s best albums here in December if we make it that far.