After a while, I’m sure it gets obnoxious to have so many write, talk, and tweet about how unlikely a star you are, when alas here you are and deservedly so. Such is blue-eyed soulster, Allen Stone’s lot. With the advent of “Unaware” making everyone aware of exactly who longtime singer/songwriter Allen Stone and his Occupy Wall Street accusation set to music are, Stone has found his skin, nerd next door looks, and Pacific Northwest origins more of a conversation piece than the brilliance of a political lyric rendered as a heartbroken lament: “You say that you care/I was unaware/All you do is push, pull, tear/ we can’t stretch any further.” Kin to Jill Scott’s “My Petition” and Raheem DeVaughn’s “Bulletproof,” Stone’s socially conscious hit single garnered a level of attention that those equal songs did not, catapulting him to an overnight sensation, when of course he has been anything but.
Timing is everything, and the fortuitousness of #OccupyEverything and the simultaneous dropping of Stone’s sophomore album has caused many to pay attention to a straggly-haired, four-eyed 24 year old who’s been out here grinding in relative anonymity for a few years heretofore to cult status and crickets.
Crickets are the last thing this young preacher’s kid from Seattle deserves, given his talent and his propensity for having something meaningful to say. Like Donnie of the Colored Section and Daily News fame and Marcell Russell (formerly of Marcell & The Truth), Stone translates his early divinity exposure and church-reared vocals to reach a broader world with an overtly secular, covertly spiritual enlightenment message; a message set to mp3 at least since 2009, if not before. “Unaware” demonstrates that he’s only grown savvier about wrapping the political in the palatable to avoid the more prominent preachiness of his earlier conscious, but no less erudite works, like “Last to Speak” and “The World We Live In” from his debut album (Last to Speak) and first EP (Take One Session EP: Vol I), respectively. He does veer a bit more into soapbox dogma on Allen Stone in the light funk of “What I’ve Seen,” but the bassline is more heavy-handed than the delivery. Stone is a natural-born teacher, and his several years of YouTube posts and three-year body of commercially available work bears out his skill and openness to evolve in his teaching even more effectively over time. Throughout his proletariat catalog, Stone’s work is filled with lines railing against a variety of everyday human symptoms of a capitalistically driven society, from interpersonal exploitation to hyper-consumerism and how all of it is making us less human.
And, what seems to most interest Stone as a most capable lyricist is how he can help remind us how to reclaim that humanity rather than merely raging against the machine. “Everybody’s feeling the strain of a nine to five,” says Stone on “Celebrate Tonight,” inviting listeners to “leave all your deadlines behind” and just enjoy the magic of being fully present in the moment, if only for one night. Stone consistently reveals a level of insight and compassionate sensitivity to the working person’s plight, even when rebuking some folk’s misplaced motivations for upward mobility and all-consuming busyness. “Whatever keeps you occupied/whatever gives you a contact high/…will never make you satisfied”; compared to the driving vitriol of the similarly themed “Satisfaction,” “Contact High” is a light chiding. The latter song is less about the expected marijuana than a handy metaphor for expressing our collective disconnection and how we’ve resorted to living off the fumes of what actually fulfills in a lived life: “Are you looking for peace of mind?/you won’t find it in your status line.” Against a backdrop of blaring brass and organ riffs, “Satisfaction” is a bit of David Bowie stirred in with an angry dollop of Robin Thicke spitting accusations against the locust-like exploitations of love ‘em and leave ‘em dissatisfaction, here disguised as an unrequited love retort. Even when going for the jugular, Stone can’t help channel an Oprah Life Class moment of urgent pleas for self-reflection. “Get your act together/It’s really all up to you/Life is always better when you don’t have nothing to prove,” proclaims Stone on “Nothing To Prove”; one may argue with Stone’s premise, but no one can hardly argue with the garage band earnestness driving his message home.
In music and arrangement, Stone has grown exponentially from his three earlier works. The arrangements in particular, while simple, have more changes and transitions than before. The band playing is funkier, fuller and far more propulsive in their soul-meets-light-rock excursions than on the vastly more minimalistic Last To Speak, a project that almost feels acoustic folk in comparison. Still, Stone musically feels to be an artist in development rather than one who has nailed his sound. Like Jamie Lidell’s Jim or Lewis Taylor’s similarly nostalgic Stoned, Stone is as much nostalgic pop as he is soul on Allen Stone. Effervescent as a teenage sock hop, “Say So” is a bit of ‘70s pop magic that has the energetic bubbly suds of Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” or a less electronically rendered Al Jarreau’s “Boogie Down.” This may not be the intent of an artist who was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I’m sick and tired of soul music looking so crisp and clean and proper! Because my soul — I said my soul! — is just a little bit greasy.” The search for oil may be how you get to a valiant attempt at up-tempo blues like “Sleep,” a swinging, if moody-ish panorama that’s selling a bit too much handclapping, tambourine pep to qualify as a true blues, despite its lyrical pathos.
Interestingly, soulfully speaking, Stone was arguably his most melodic and emotionally bare in previous gifts like “False Alarms” and “Figure It Out,” but here rarely ventures into this more personal territory as on “Your Eyes.” Graciously, slow dancing does get a revival in the lip-locked sway of “The Wind” a blue lights song that could sit side-by-side with Electric Empire’s “Little Things” as the hot toddy homage to all the hip-to-hip circle sauntering that used to be a staple of our lives, but sadly appears to be slipping away. Unfortunately, the inflexibility of Stone’s consistently monotone tone and timbre feel less suited for a song whose light penmanship required an equally airy vocal approach; one Stone only has in an ever present vocal resonance, but not in technical ability. Only the sure falsetto and intensely emotional natural on “Unaware” demonstrates the possibility of a more agile voiced balladeer in the making on Allen Stone.
The pitch perfect timing of “Unaware” already informs us just how much promise has been fulfilled in Allen Stone, teacher and songwriter. Only time will tell if his musicality and vocals catch up to the inspiring levels of his writing and creative voice. In the meantime, two fine EPs, one astonishing—if brow beating—debut, and solidly strong sophomore project says that the story is Allen Stone, the artist; the rest is just media noise for those sadly still unaware. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson