Detroit songwriter crafts 11 personal, DIY songs rooted in power pop tradition and delivered with punkish fervor.
To some, crafting pop-infused punk rock is a young man’s game. Though he’s far from old, Detroit’s Ryan Allen subverts this notion on his latest work, Basement Punk, proving age, experience, and adult concerns need not temper one’s vigor in this realm. Factored in with the right acumen, those components can add gravitas and staying power to one’s songcraft. “I’m in my mid-thirties / But I don’t mind,” Allen infectiously proclaims in the record’s opening lyrics, defiant of preconceptions and reveling in the self-awareness and wisdom accompanying age. With a charging rhythm and fiery guitar work blazing around his vocals, first cut “Watch Me Explode” amounts to a mission statement for the album.
As the third LP credited to Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms, the work is largely a solo affair. Though his father served as engineer and friend Sean Sommer handled drum duties, Allen played everything else himself. Allen has described the 11 songs as very personal and as a gift to himself, free of external pressures. This DIY approach doesn’t make the album feel self-indulgent, however. The tunes’ hooks are immediate and accessible. Firmly rooted in the power pop tradition, they’re modern with a ‘70s flare and punkish fervor. Each song is short and sweet, delivered with a jolt of freneticism, the guitars both jangly and distorted. Despite the firsthand lyrics, their everyman quality makes them inherently relatable.
Permeating the record is an end of summer/onset of autumn feel. It’s an apt vibe for a record that conceptually grapples, then come to terms, with growing older. The record’s centerpiece, “Mal n’ Ange”, epitomizes this. In it, the narrator reminisces on his youthful heyday and the camaraderie of friends, a steady guitar riffing through the verses. The melody is elevated on the refrain, wherein Allen sings, “Now we are older / And have responsibilities / But in our hearts / We’re still those crazy kids.” It’s a concise observation, not the most novel, but it adequately captures a sense of nostalgia.
While there exists a template throughout the record, there is also a fair amount of subgenre blending. On “Chasing a Song”, Allen takes on a folksy role, singing whimsically of pursuing the muse. With its mid-tempo and effervescent guitar notes, it conjures sensations of driving down a rural road at dusk with color-changing leaves hanging from the surrounding trees. The psychedelic-era Beatles meets Alex Chilton of “Alex Whiz”, by contrast, offers a more summer tone. The scorcher “Basement Punks” is propulsive as it chronicles the travails of a nascent band playing low-paying gigs for the fun of it, a breakneck rhythm dueling with solos to convey that lifestyle’s turbulence. “People Factory” is atypically dark, built on a repetitive, descending guitar pattern and steeped in eeriness. The lyrics lamenting the narrator’s uniqueness in a world of carbon copy individuals initially come off a bit juvenile, but if you consider it’s being related from the perspective of an alienated teen, it gains some allowance. Starting with some acoustic strumming before electric chords rise up, “Gorgeous w/ Guitars” is Allen at his most affecting, stating wearily in the hook “And it’s taking its toll / All this rock and this roll.”
There are a few tunes that fail to set themselves apart from the pack. “Gimme Some More”, with its bitter criticism toward younger bands’ perceived careerism, makes one think of a curmudgeon shaking his fist at kids to stay off his lawn. However, Allen does cop to a possible admittance of begrudging envy in “Who am I to judge? / Why do I hold a grudge? / I had it all / But then it went away.” “Two Steps Behind” repeats the notion of feeling left behind, before being juxtaposed with a commitment to being comfortable in the now, which comes across as redundant at this point. “Without a Doubt” shoots for lyrical depth with its observations, but said observations are fairly obvious (“Did you ever wonder / When we will discover / That we’re basically all the same?”). Fortunately, the record rebounds by wrapping on a strong closer. “Everything (In Moderation)” sweeps along with a sense of acceptance and thematic closure.
Basement Punk is reflective without being maudlin in the least. It’s about a veteran musician embracing the present while stealing a few glances over his shoulder to his past, giving it a smirk before turning to seize the future.