As a rule of thumb, acoustic folk-punk artists either “get it” or don’t. Chuck Ragan? Gets it. Kevin Seconds? Doesn’t get it. Dave Hause? Gets it. Tim Barry? (in this reviewer’s opinion) Not so much. And so on – either you love ‘em or hate ‘em, there is seldom a middle ground. With such a fickle audience, it’s a tough gig to break into, and an even tougher one to thrive under.
Germany’s John Allen won’t be on many people’s radar just yet, but this tattoo-touting throaty troubadour is in the inaugural stages of making waves in Europe. After an extended stretch of supporting dates alongside Frank Turner, Allen is giving it his all in a clear attempt to take centre stage with his all new full length, Sophomore. A thoughtful ten-song disc that sees Allen wear his heart on his sleeve in much the vein of Turner and many of his peers, Sophomore will catch first time listeners off guard with its high level of authenticity.
Sophomore reveals a glowing personality that shines through in John Allen‘s very communicative lyrical style. Channeling a vocal combination Leonard Cohen, Rick Steff (Lucero), and Robin Grey (bonus points if you know this guy), there’s a sort of past meets present feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on, but that will invariably appeal to the modern acoustic crowd mentioned above. In his strongest moments, Allen looks inward for inspiration, resulting in a deeply personal but openly relatable set of songs much in the same vein of Frank Turner’s breakout work in Love, Song & Ire. For instance, “New Years Eve” opens Sophomore with a forward looking retrospect that anyone who has ever set a resolution that they knew they could not keep can relate to. “One more new beginning, closer to my dissolution… maybe this will be my year,” sings Allen in the type of against-all-odds optimism that would make even the steepest cliffs seem traversable.
Allen is at his best when sripped down with his six-string and looking inward. His magical combination seems to be a cocktail of a steadily strummed acoustic guitar, intermittent violin strokes and a modest but playful tempo (along with an occasional piano). The ramblers’ anthem, “Home,” quickly takes Sophomore’s crown, melding the aforementioned formula with a soaring late-song bridge and a purposeful guest spot from Frank Turner (do you see the theme developing here?). Like minded tunes “Freedom,” “Lessons I Have Learned,” and “It’s Raining Every Day” communicate a similarly raw interpretation of humanity with a hopeful instrumental bop that takes avvantage of the disc’s instrumental breadth. Later, Allen tries his hand at an eloquent piano ballad in “Blood Brothers” and “Famous Last Words” with encouragingly emotive results.
Sophomore isn’t without a few forgivable hiccups though. The least successful tracks lean to the rock n’ roll side of things in the vein of The Gaslight Anthem. “Rock N’ Roll Romeos” attempts to emulate a rough and tough bar-band vibe, but the broken-heart dreamer doesn’t quite jive with the accompanying face-value narration. Likewise, “Springtime’s” repetitious and cyclical lyrics struggle to gain traction due to a few shallow, lackluster lines like “can someone help me, I am falling… can’t someone tell me what to do.” Sophomore’s minor blips may not have been as noticeable if the rest of the disc wasn’t substantially deeper.
But by and large, Sophomore shines a deserving spotlight on John Allen’s commendable talents. He’s not the type of artist foreigners would typically associated with the German music scene. Rather Allen has more in common with those singer/songwriters that make the annual pilgrimage to Gainesville, Florida for that crazy weekend of mostly American punk-rock known as THE FEST. Such a scenario bodes well for Allen expanding his reach well beyond his country’s borders and into the hearts and minds of a global audience.