Last year, Frank Turner-approved musician John Allen released his latest full length offering, Sophomore, via Gunner Records, as well sharing the sharing the stage with the likes of Tim Vantol and Joe Ginsberg. Though he humbly describes himself as “yet another one of these bearded and tattooed singer/songwriters”, we don’t stand alone in being fans of his work, and with his new EP Orphan Keys seeing him step away from his guitar to st by a piano, it would appear his talent stretches beyond what Sophomore hinted at.
A simple instrumental intro to the first of the seven tracks, America, leads out to ease the EP in gently with John’s storytelling lyrics folding themselves into the song, a raspy edge to his vocals adding a human touch to the music. Although the song develops, it avoids picking up pace, and this level of control is so absorbing that you’re bound to find yourself calming and relaxing to the gentle, swaying, rhythm of the music.
Picking up where the previous song left off, John’s observational and compelling lyrics tell of New York in Criminals And Baseball Stars. He may be a guy who sings sad songs, but so captivating is his voice that it’s hard to notice. Take the closing line here, “a fine line between triumph and defeat”, a handful of words that may seem like a throwaway phrase but in line with the song and on closer inspection are deeply thought provoking and hard hitting.
Hints of optimism blossom through even the heaviest moments such as the chorus of Thou Shalt Be Saved, yet another track where I could pick out more than a handful of lines and discuss their brilliance – but then we’d be here all day. In some ways, mainly the hooks and theme, this song very much feels like a stripped back reply to Frank Turner’s I Still Believe.
I could continue and pull apart the longing in Ruby’s Arms, the affection in Breaking Waves, the consoling tone of Close Your Eyes and the fierce determination in Home, but I could be here for hours trying to emphasise the power and talent behind each song.
When you have a band with you, it can be easy to shy away and hide behind the weight of the music, and to a certain extent the same could be applied to an acoustic guitar; but with nothing but a piano, there’s an almost blank canvas demanding filling perfectly, and fill it perfectly John does.