Winchester born, London-based Jon Allen’s Deep River is a collection of songs with solid roots and a sense of place that can only be articulated using the landscaped language of this sceptred isle. If good music is all about conjuring images in the mind, there’s plenty to choose from here – we get sleepy country lanes overhung with Oaks, fields bordered with blooming hedgerows running down to bubbling brooks and slow-moving rivers, cobbled streets with the lights of a tavern on their corner, music and laughter spilling out into the night. There are windswept moors, mill-wheels and honest, hard toil, high days and holidays, Jerusalem rising into the air from the village church. Deep River is the bucolic summer haze and muted orchestration of Nick Drake, the urban spit and sawdust noise of Ray Davies and the barely restrained blues licks and rasp of John Martyn or early Peter Green.
If all that sounds like the album has a little too much going on or a lack of direction, fear not; as with most good art, quality will out. The disparate elements and influences are corralled by the emotion in Allen’s voice and his consistent guitar work, factors that weave their way through the stylistic changes until you’re presented with a work that is much more than the sum of its parts. If the aforementioned masters of their art have big shoes to fill, it’s an unfair comparison; Allen isn’t emulating them, but is unmistakably a son of their respective schools.
There are highlights throughout. First single Night & Day builds nicely from a solo guitar line to include drums and orchestration and introduces a voice somewhere between Rod Stewart gritty and David Gray melancholy. It’s an instrument of rare emotive beauty, the passion and feeling only just contained. The album is at its best when Allen unleashes his lead guitar chops. Falling Back has some lovely piano and a great solo and leans towards the songwriter genre. The funk blues of Get What’s Mine struts like a rooster in heat, Allen’s voice lets loose over brass accents and a rock-steady beat. The equally cock-sure Fire in My Heart and the banjo-breaking go-for-broke All the Money’s Gone, complete with echo enhancing the edge of sanity vocals on the chorus, are foot-stompers.
Contrast these with the rustic Hummingbird Blues, the melody meandering like the river of the title track while you relax in a boat on the upper reaches of the Thames on a lazy mid-summer’s day with Jerome K Jerome on the tiller, the soul-inflected Loving Arms swept along by gospel-tinged backing vocals or Lady of the Water, which could be an outtake from Zeppelin’s Bron-Y-Aur sessions. The cymbal splashes and sadness of Wait For Me is a gentle guitar strum supported by swirling Hammond. The album closes on the beautiful Keep Moving On with its suggestion that the journey is more important than the destination:
‘We got fear, in our bones / And it feels like we’re so far from home / But it’s only the pain of our growing.’
It has a mouth-watering melody and a mournful harmonica line that fades away to nothing.
In an ideal world, this sort of layered inventiveness and the confidence to display such varied wares on one disc would receive due reward. I recommend slipping into its shallows and allowing it to carry you downstream for a while.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Deep River is released 7 July 2014 via Monologue Records