Chris Allen's new album, Acetate, doesn't immediately grab you the way his other records do. The harsher edges and slow build of the opener "Love Not Born" sounds little like the local singer-songwriter's usual Sprinsgteen-meets-the-Replacements bar stomps. The hook isn't very immediate either — not even when you get to the chorus. And even though the song barely clocks in at three minutes it comes off as a much longer and way more tangled, piece than it actually is.
Allen is well aware of this. One of the first things he asks when we meet for a recent late-morning chat is what I think of the album. "Were you shocked the first time you heard it?" Well, yeah.
But spend some time with Acetate (his third solo album), and you'll realize that it's one of Allen's most intricately woven records, a deep, personal, and yes, complex work that demands your attention. In a way, Acetate is his first album as a serious "artist" entering his studio-as-playground period.
"We set out to do something that we'd never done before," he says. "We wanted to spend a couple of days on each track, rather than go in for four or five days, doing three songs a day. We kept adding different textures, and the record kept changing each day."
The second song, "The Man Who Shook the World," doesn't immediately spark either (though it's lyrically one of Acetate's strongest cuts). And the slow, spare, and strings-guided "Immediate Blue" is 90 percent atmosphere. In fact, you have to skip all the way to the fifth track, "We Are Just Kids," to hear Allen rocking out the way he used to.
The 40-year-old Allen has grown up quite a bit since the last time he released an album two years ago. He got married. He bought a house in Fairview Park. And, most important, his father passed away. "I got bored with my old ways of writing," he says. "I wanted to reach a little bit further. There was a change in the family dynamic, and so many things have happened that brought me so much closer to a lot of people. I'm much more appreciative of what I have. It helps fortify you in a world that's falling apart.
"I'm much more comfortable in taking on some bigger concepts now. I still get off on playing the angry rock & roll songs, but I'm more comfortable being more poetic than just talking about girlfriends. There's more to it than just bashing people over the head with electricity."
Allen is still as hard-working and driven as he was 15 years ago, when he first started getting serious about music. The solo gig, which gets most of his attention, is just one of several projects he's involved with. Allen's résumé includes his breakthrough band, Rosavelt, who were active from 1996 through 2004; Pogues cover group Boys From the County Hell, still a popular holiday draw around here; bluegrass band the Lonesome Stars; punk brats the Bedroom Legends; the Christmas-themed Ohio City Singers; and various session work. He's even writing songs for his newest side project, Scar Lovers, which features Magpies and former Whiskeyhounds frontman Roger Hoover.
But his "busiest year ever" centers on the mostly self-financed Acetate, which was recorded in his basement studio and produced — just like 2008's Things Unbroken, 2006's solo debut Goodbye Girl and the Big Apple Circus, and Rosavelt's last album, 2004's The Story of Gasoline — by Don Dixon, who worked on R.E.M.'s first two albums and lives near Canton. Dixon is more than just the guy sitting behind the boards, turning knobs; he's become Allen's most faithful collaborator. The twisty, moody sounds on Acetate are just as much his. So is its creative direction.
"I had a song that I thought was going to be great for the album," recalls Allen. "And he was, like, 'You should get somebody to co-write that with you and then give it to them to put on their record, because you're not putting it on yours.'"
Acetate just came out on CD, digitally, and — for the first time in Allen's career — old-school vinyl. He's promoting it with shows in his typically strong markets: Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and, of course, Cleveland. It's anyone's guess how some of the new songs will play out live, but Allen is confident they'll have more bite. It's still part of his nature to plug in and turn it up. "It will be rawer onstage," he says. "But I probably will never go back to recording that way. I love making records like this now. I feel more in control of it."Send feedback to [email protected].