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Allen Stone: Apart
by George Graham
(ATO Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/22/2021)
As part of the continuing retro movement, there has been a good deal of 1960s soul influenced music being created by a younger generation of artists, who might not have been alive when the music was popular in the first place. They often try to be as authentic as possible, to the point of including the analog sonic limitations of a half century ago. But in most cases, the arrangements are similar to what they were back in the day, with most of the younger retro artists eschewing the synthesizers and electronic-computer generated percussion sounds that dominate so much of today’s pop. This week we have a retro soul artist who goes a step further on his new album and strips the arrangements down to just acoustic guitar and piano, and comes up with a surprisingly appealing, downright charismatic album. It’s Allen Stone and his new recording is called Apart.
The now 34-year-old Allen Stone is a native of Eastern Washington, near Spokane, the son of a father who was a preacher and a nurse mother. He was active in the church, singing in his father’s congregation at age 3, and by his teens, was leading worship and playing guitar. Also in his teens, he discovered classic soul and began collecting albums from the period, with Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions a strong influence.
After a friend of his began to have a successful musical career, Stone decided that was for him. He attended community college for a semester and then Bible school for a year, but decided that the music was more of a draw, and ended up moving to Seattle to pursue his music. He released his debut independent album in 2010, and got wider distribution for his second release, an eponymous recording, the following year. By 2018, he appeared on the “American Idol” TV series.
His last album, his fourth, called Building Balance was released just before the pandemic shut down performing opportunities. The new album Apart was recorded during the pandemic, largely by himself in the studio, working with producer Ryan Hadlock and engineer Taylor Carroll, and in that context, re-recorded some of the songs from his previous albums in the mostly solo setting, with Josh Rawlings featured on keyboards, though Stone also plays the piano at times.
Stone has absorbed the soul influence well and his vocals really makes the album what it is, not overdoing the soul cliches, and drawing on his Gospel influence at times. He also does his own background vocals. His lyrics range from rather classic style love songs, to songs of social consciousness, as some of the great soul artists did, though he comes to it from a different perspective as a white man doing the music and talks about it on one of his songs called American Privilege.
But opening is one of his earlier songs, Unaware, which sets the pace for the album. It also offers some social commentary. <<>>
More contemplative in sound is a pleasing love song called Give You Blue which also spotlights the effectiveness of the intimate musical setting. <<>>
The album features a guest vocal appearance by Canadian singer-songwriter Alessia Cara in a song called Bed I Made, a sort of confessional love song. <<>>
A song that Stone released in 2018 as a single, Brown Eyed Lover is given the acoustic treatment on the new album. It’s another quite positive love song. <<>>
Some of Stone’s Gospel influence his heard on Consider Me done with the piano. It’s also very nicely performed. <<>>
The song American Privilege considers the state of the world, and his own situation as a white man performing this iconically African American music. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is The Wire done in an acoustic guitar setting, another bit of social commentary, considering the state of the world, and why things are the way they are. <<>>
Another strong track is Where You’re At done in a piano setting. It’s a kind of lyrical opposite to the existential questioning of the previous song. Here the message is “Love Where You’re At.” <<>>
Allen Stone’s new fifth album Apart is quite a delight. He takes the classic soul style and strips it down to its sheerest fundamentals, with acoustic guitar, and/or piano and Stone’s charismatic vocals, and captures the essence of what gives the soul idiom its musical honesty. It’s interesting that he chose to redo some of his previous material, which in the past was not that heavily produced to begin with, but here, it could not be more intimate. The one production concession is the added backing vocals, but Stone performed them himself.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” Stone’s vocals are nicely recorded with just the right amount of reverb effect, and the instrumentation is captured with good clarity. The recording contributes to the album’s feeling of intimacy.
The pandemic may have been part of the reason for Allen Stone to record in this solo or duo setting, but it in the process, it showed what a great singer he is, and how you don’t need a band to make very soulful music.
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