After a decade on the local rock scene as a supporting player or helpful sidekick, Robbie Allen finally steps forward as the singer-songwriter of Thermadore.
Waiting pays when you're bottling wine or whiskey, and it has paid off for Allen as he finally makes his own record. His rough, earthy voice carries both the initial bite and the warm afterglow of a good glass of bourbon, and his catchy, compact pop songs evoke emotionally complex slices of life.
In his helpful-sidekick guise, Allen, who grew up in Seal Beach, became one of the best-connected musicians on the Orange County rock scene.
He began in the mid-'80s with hitches in Cathedral of Tears and Tender Fury, two bands led by mercurial punker Jack Grisham. Allen briefly fronted his own late-'80s band, Gypsy Trash, which never recorded, dabbled in a never-issued recording project with Rat Scabies of the Damned, then helped launch the outstanding punk-pop band One Hit Wonder, sharing the vocals and songwriting with Dan Root. Leaving Root in charge, Allen skipped to a guitar-playing gig with the band Rob Rule, which released a disappointing album on Mercury in 1994.
Through it all, Allen made his primary living as a roadie for the Red Hot Chili Peppers--tuning guitars, sitting in for shows as an extra guitarist and backup singer--and sometimes doing a solo folkie gig as a warmup act.
In Thermadore, Allen is joined by guitarist David King and bassist Chris Wagner, both formerly of Mary's Danish (King also played in Rob Rule). Josh Freese and the Chili Peppers' Chad Smith divide the drumming, and Pearl Jam's guitarist, Stone Gossard, lends a hand on four tracks.
It's a fine album for drums and guitars. The percussionists supply loose, syncopated, natural-sounding grooves, usually abetted by enticing tambourine shakes. The guitarists come up with folksy acoustic-electric blends, some evocative instrumental intros, and an array of shifting textures and tasty melodic fills to color the music.
It all fits Allen's style, built largely from the classic timber of early-'70s Rolling Stones. Taking license from "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street," Allen explores folk, funk and country sources, together with flat-out raunchy rock.
"Monkey on Rico" (the cover shot of Allen's pooch, Rico, inspired the odd title) earns its price in the first two songs alone. "Three Days," a warm, easy-shuffling folk-rock tune, casts Allen as a road-weary stagehand awaiting his return to home and sweetheart with great hopes but also no small trepidation. For him, the road has lost its allure, and he's well aware of its potential toll on a relationship. A sweet, Garth Hudson-like organ breeze underscores the dominant note of hopefulness.
The instantly unforgettable "Amerasian" is a perfect pop-rocker that captures a moment and evokes a whole, aching swath of experience. The protagonist--sung by Allen in a markedly Springsteenian husk--is deeply in love with his Amerasian girl, but he's finding it hard to get past their cultural differences ("Tet is swell, but it ain't Christmas--fireworks and all").
Rather than making a big statement about multicultural issues, Allen deftly traces this great divide with a light personal touch, packing the now-charging, now-wistful rocker with both conflicted feeling and touching fondness, straight through to the "Tumblin' Dice" coda.
There are other highlights. In "Missing," Beatle-esque pop-baroque harmony touches embellish grim musings delivered in a voice steeped in anguish, dread and reproach.
"Punk Rock Beating," a sloppy, grease-spitting rocker in the tradition of the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls, is a boozy portrait of a blustery fellow who has gotten so comically disgusted that we can't help but be amused.
Gossard co-wrote "Anton," an energetic funk workout played for the silly fun of it, while "Pushing" is a nervous mood piece that carries a distinct flavor of Pearl Jam.
"Santa Rosa," which sounds like a prime Dramarama cut, is a winning portrait of teen disaffection, capturing the bummed-out boredom of growing up suburban and the sense of energy and possibility that come with being young. It's another example of Allen's knack for weaving an ambiguous pattern of feelings--a quality that makes his songs sink in deeply and gives them the stamp of truthfulness.
"Candywrapper" is the only throw-away track. This intentional stylistic knockoff of Elvis Costello makes for a zesty tribute to a pop fave, but it doesn't resonate beyond the homage-paying. A concluding cover of "Everything's Alright," from "Jesus Christ Superstar," introduces Rain Phoenix, younger sister of River, as a beguiling voice of comfort.
Having waited this long to step out on record, Allen keeps us waiting still for a recorded version of what's probably his finest song, "El Capitan." It's a moving, elegiac ballad about guilt and obligation, set in the Old West, that he used to perform with One Hit Wonder. We can wait; beyond the rich and varied pleasures it holds, "Monkey on Rico" is proof that patience pays.
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.