If you first encountered John Allen as I did, a tousle-haired troubadour, sporting a rocked up Dylan vibe on an acoustic guitar in a back street boozer, then Orphan Keys may come as a bit of a shock. A pleasant shock, an interesting change of tack certainly but not quite what you might have been expecting.
As a snap shot of what is to follow, Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic America, which opens the album, is the perfect introduction. Hushed, sparse piano and a voice that feels like the owner has seen it all is pretty much all this album is built on, a wonderful reminder of the less is more adage in this often over-produced, over-played, over-dosed world.
Following in the traditions of the bar-room narrator, the piano man dealing in home truths and social observations, kitchen sink drama and broken dreams, Allen sits somewhere between Tom Waits and Billy Joel (the early stuff when he still had something to say.) And because of the sparseness of the music, the lyrics rightly take centre stage exposing a Springsteen-esque way of describing the dark heart of NYC (Criminals and Baseball Stars,) the redemptive powers of rock’n’roll (Thou Shall be Saved) of travel and home, longing and belonging, loneliness and love.
What Allen has captured is the thoughts and emotions of the traveller, someone on a quest, the focus of which remains yet vague, a voyage of discovery both geographically and personally and through these songs it is a journey that is a joy to follow, time and time again.