From delicate finger-picked folk to the stomp and twang of electric blues, 'Deep River' is, in many ways, a whistle-stop tour of the sounds and ideas that have provided the basis for country, blues, folk and consequently rock over the past 50 years. The fact that 'Deep River' is so deeply im-mersed within its influences means that it sounds like an album which could conceivably been re-leased at any point throughout the past few decades. Certainly, the record offers nothing to suggest that it is a product of an artist informed by the trends and tastes prevalent in 2014.
Both musically and lyrically, Jon Allen follows a well-beaten track. Even the album title itself oozes folk sensibilities, and surprises across the piece are virtually non-existent. There's nothing left field here. 'Deep River' is a steadfastly traditional album informed by the vast expanse of folk and blues which has preceded it.
Yet, despite its familiarity, it's impossible to ignore how elegantly crafted many of the songs on 'Deep River' are. Album opener 'Night and Day' begins earthy and impassioned as Allen's gravelly voice mourns an unreciprocated love howling: "If I can't have your love/ I don't want nothing at all." Opening with delicately picked chords before percussion, strings and flourishes of electric guitar swell in presence, 'Night and Day' lays down a formula which forms the template for a number of songs on the album.
Second track 'Lady of the 'Water' begins in a similar manner, a first verse where lovelorn vocals float over gently picked chords before the introduction of strings as the song fills out into several layers. 'Falling Back' and 'Humming Bird Blues' repeat the trick, but there's enough poetry in Allen's delivery to keep things from getting stale, especially in the aforementioned 'Lady of the Water' as Allen intones: "At the turn of midnight/ In the burning far light/ Did I see your fragile figure dancing in the flame."
It isn't until track five that Allen adopts a different tone. When it comes on 'Fire in my Heart', it's the type of stomping blues you'd expect from someone whose output is so informed by the blues and folk of the mid 20th century.
Yet while 'Fire In My Heart' serves as a welcome change in tone, it is far from an album highlight. While earlier songs benefit from thoughtful arrangements, this one sounds too contrived to really impress. This is especially the case when compared to 'Get What's Mine' and 'All The Money's Gone'; two of the album's rockier moments which fare much better - the latter swinging like an un-hinged rusty gate and sounding all the better for it.
With the rock and blues infused tracks situated in the latter half of the album, listeners who make it past the mid-point of the album are rewarded with a more balanced and varied selection of songs. If the album has a sing-a-long moment then it's probably title track 'Deep River', the only song on the album which relies on its chorus to provide its impetus. In fact, it's an interesting quirk of the album that in virtually every song, excluding its title track, the most memorable hooks are actually cutely hidden away in song verses as opposed to their choruses.
Hammond organs make an appearance on both 'Wait for Me' and 'Loving Arms', but despite slight nuances, the tone and themes of the album remain constant throughout. These are songs primarily about love and heartache, and they are delivered within the template laid down by folk and blues musicians of the past.
In a way, the strengths of 'Deep River' are also its weaknesses. As a whole, the album is a cohe-sive piece of work that flows well and houses some memorable songs in 'Night and Day' and 'All The Money's Gone'. On the flip side, by adhering so stringently to well-worn templates, 'Deep River' betrays a lack of ambition in places, with Allen sticking well within his comfort zone.
Yet, while the album may seem over familiar in places, you don't have to reinvent the wheel in or-der to write good material. 'Deep River' shows that Allen knows this and has created an album which plays to his strengths.
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