Some singers are so distinctive, so idiosyncratic that the first word of the first song comes off like a proposition, a question-before-we-go-any-further: Do you, will you, can you “go there?” For singer/songwriter Amy Allison, this moment comes 15 seconds into the song “Cheater’s World,” the first track on her acclaimed 1996 solo debut, The Maudlin Years: “I’ve been drinking the vodka and thinking about ya.” It is a voice so curiously nasal, pinched and small, your first response might be, “how dare she?” but after about 30 seconds, you’re fully inured and Allison’s voice becomes something eminently likable, personable, piquant and perfect for the delivery of her high-country tropes.
Most of Amy Allison’s material plays by the strict rules of the country weeper: universal lyrical themes of heartache and betrayal cast in everyman musical materials and borne by standard country instrumentation. When you accept the grueling commonplace disciplines of country, the virtuosity comes in the finer points of melodic line and turn-of-phrase (in which Allison’s songs are indisputably rich) and in the pretty much unanswerable big question: does it score, does it hit the big target? There, too, in this writer’s opinion, Allison’s average is way better than most.
Across her career, Allison departs from the country template into swinging, uptown sophistication just often enough (for instance, on the stunning “Put It in a Box” from the The Maudlin Years) to remind you that she is the daughter of the legendary pianist and songwriter Mose Allison. Her most recent album, 2009’s lovely Sheffield Streets, is barely an alt-country album at all. It is a rich, diverse and deliciously detailed collection of classic pop and parlor art song, featuring duets with Elvis Costello (a long-time and vocal Amy Allison fan) and Dave Alvin. By the way, if you are ever looking for external authorities to validate your tastes, use Elvis Costello. He is never wrong about stuff that is good. Amy Allison is the real deal.
Allison performs at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts on Saturday, November 3 at 8:00 p.m. along with local songwriter Mark Donato (see recent Almanac story on our website: https://ulsterpub.wpengine.com/2012/04/09/mark-donato-to-perform-at-ask-on-saturday/). Tickets are $15 general admission and $12 for Byrdcliffe members. The Kleinert/James Center for the Arts is located at 36 Tinker Street in Woodstock. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.