2016 has been a year of contrasts and unpredictabilities - on one hand I've come across quite a lot of rather unspectacular music, and on the other hand I've discovered some incredible artists and virtually unknown major unsung talents. And here's another of the latter. Allysen's a songwriter and (self-taught) guitarist from Rhode Island who produces what she herself terms "quiet music for a loud world", and what's been dubbed by others "ghost folk". Certainly the latter tag can seem particularly accurate, in that Allysen's music often seems familiar from somewhere you can't quite place, the ghost of a song you might know perhaps, and also in that she sings almost exclusively in a tender, hushed tone, if not exactly pianissimo. However, this doesn't mean her music lacks expression, or that her writing lacks substance. Her music doesn't need to shout or force an entry into your mind; it casts its oblique spell without overwhelming the sound picture.
Although Allysen's delivery is precise and poised, with impeccable enunciation, and the musical settings are sparse and spacious, it's still a good idea to have the lyrics to hand while listening (all downloadable from her website) in order to appreciate the delicacy of imagery and expressive nuance within an often implied structure that can (perversely?) be harder to divine in the actual "real time" moment of performance - not always an easy concept to get across, when the impact of the sung text can, I guess, feel more akin to glimpses of a mystical world half-realised and existing in parallel to ours. This fleeting, ephemeral impression is accentuated by the subliminal nature of the musical backing - for the most part just Allysen's intricate finger-picked guitar figures, but gently bedecked with spectral (yes, almost ghostly) ambient touches (configured by producer Bob Kendall) which shift around and just outside the corner of your ear ("not quite present") and almost don't register on the aural radar. Nuances of inconsolable sadness and yearning linger around in inner space (or hover around the blurred boundary between the natural and personal worlds), seeking findings or partners for their thoughts.
Opening song It's Not The Ocean provides a good example of Allysen's unusual way of setting words - whereby the one is not an obvious concomitant or "way to go" for the other; perhaps against expectation, this can be more rewarding for the listener. The melody and phrasing of Bluest Bird, on the other hand, recalls Sandy Denny or Josienne Clarke - which is however not to say that it's either derivative or conventional. The stalking rhythm of Shoot Me accompanies the semi-spoken narrative of a nightmare, and its powerful whispered invocation is well paired with the enigmatic O Deathless & Divine which follows. The disc's title song provides possibly the finest representation of Allysen's style - the sweeping irregularity of the lines (both lyrical and melodic) in playful and yet quite deliberate juxtaposition, all the while underpinned by scurrying, restless yet contented guitar. Allysen also has an interesting way with covers - her take on Long Black Veil was a highlight of previous album Mumblin' Sue, and here she brings an eerie yet strangely involved sense of detachment to Gordon Lightfoot's Sundown.
Allysen is an artful practitioner who packs a considerable amount of content - thought and meaning - into the album's just-under-half-an-hour span. You need to give it more than linear time to make its mark, then. And by the way, The Song The Songbird Sings is Allysen's sixth release (four albums and two EPs) in the past nine years, so there's plenty more to backtrack on, and it's well worth the effort.
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