[14 November 2005]
Ashton Allen is trying to be grouped with the masters of sweetly subdued pop music. There’s been an ad on this publication for weeks declaring Allen’s similarity to Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. If we learn nothing else from Dewdrops, we can understand that it takes more than a certain recording technique and timid vocals to be compared to Elliott Smith.
One huge difference is that Allen sounds happy most of the time. Even when his voice is depressed, his words are happy: “Miracles they happen every day / I think it’s time for me / To put this doubt upon a shelf / And keep it there forever.”” Remember when Elliott Smith wrote a similar line on XO? Me neither. It’s because he didn’t. However, the sound of some of these songs is impeccably Smith’s. The title track, with its finger-plucked guitar and double tracked vocals, sounds like a Smith outtake. It also features Allen’s most adventurous melody and chord use. Only backed by a tapping shoe and gorgeous harmonies, this is Allen achieving the lofty heights of the masters referenced in advertisements. Also, the guitar tone on “Counting the Cost” is straight from Figure 8. More often than not, though, Allen reverts to traditional chord progressions that conjure up pop radio more than college radio. This is, I’m sure, in part due to producer Colin Cobb, whose most famous clients include the acronym all-stars TLC and LFO.
If Allen chooses to play it safe with his instrumentation, he must be an impressive lyricist to make an impact on his listeners. Unfortunately he is not: “I never will forget that day / I was in a cabin far away / I couldn’t imagine where you were at.” Where you were at? C’mon, Ashton. This isn’t middle school. Readers should be lucky that I’m sparing them the point at which Allen calls himself “a selfish fellow”. These lyrical lapses could be excusable if the music weren’t so timid, but words like fellow are so unusual in everyday speech that they’re difficult to overlook.
Some bright spots do exist on the album. “Drive” is an excellent piano tune with a labyrinthine melody akin to Smith’s “Everything Means Nothing to Me”, but it ends after only a minute. “Starting Over” captures a lazy vibe and features some excellent backing mandolin. Occurring more often than these departures, we get songs like “Every Hour of the Day”, which sounds like a John Mayer intro. There’s so little passion evident in the music that many songs sound like a blurry representation of better songs written by more consistent artists.
Dewdrops is consistently a solo affair, with Allen playing most instruments. Songs not lyrically sappy enough are given a treatment of strings by Tim Lauer. A t the hands of Lauer’s arrangement, “Something to Say” goes from sounding like a lesser song from the Either/Or sessions to being a string-laden snooze-fest. The opening track begins with an ominous tone and vocals similar to Lou Barlow’s. Instead of strings on this song, we get horns, when we hear how Allen’s gray skies are turning blue: “You turned my darkness into day”. It’s made for radio in the same way that Jason Mraz is made for radio. By generalizing so vaguely about the excellent girl referenced in these songs, Allen shuns the reality of love while allowing every 20-something enamored by his virile man-stubble to dream that she is the one whom he’s singing about.
Ashton Allen writes superb background music, but it’s clear that Allen is trying to make it much more than that. At one point, Allen sings, “If you leave, my heart is in your hands.” I wish that Allen would take his heart from off his sleeve (or, I guess, from out of his vague girlfriend’s hands) and shove it back into his chest cavity where it belongs. It’d make for more compelling songs.