Allison Crowe, Secrets (Rubenesque Records)
by: Steve Horowitz
There is something about the sound of a woman's voice and a piano that can create a special kind of splendor and poignancy. The music can be happy or sad, but the power of just one person singing and playing with heart and soul can be more overwhelming than a full orchestra or a full-tilt boogie band. Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, and countless other female performers have known and taken advantage of this information. Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe has also learned this secret.
The 22-year-old native of British Columbia celebrates her mixed Irish and Manx heritages and her home city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, which is the largest island on the North American west coast and enjoys a high reputation for its cultural productions. Crowe brags that she's been performing since she was age six and by fifteen was part of the coffee house and bar circuit of her home island. Although still a young lass, Crowe already has performed live hundreds of times at just about every type of venue, from clubs to churches to concert halls. She's shared a stage with fellow pianist/vocalist Diana Krall and played on a Beatles tribute album along with punk legends Dee Dee Ramone and Sylvain Sylvain.
Crowe has just released her debut full-length release Secrets on her own label. She basically sings and plays piano unaccompanied on almost all of the 11 songs, nine of which she penned herself. (She also covers of Leonard Cohen's declamatory "Joan of Arc" and the Counting Crows' tender "Raining in Baltimore.") Crowe takes pride in drawing inspiration from a variety of musical sources, including gospel, rock, jazz, blues, and folk. This can be a good thing, as when she blends church-style piano phrasings and a rollicking backbeat on songs such as "Sea of Million Faces" and "Immersed." On the other hand, Crowe needs to assert her creative imagination more on songs like "How Long" and "Midnight" that are in danger of sounding like generic pop music. In these cases Crowe mixes musical genres together in a manner that squanders the distinctiveness of what makes these modes special in the first place.
Similar remarks can be said about how Crowe uses her voice. She has a strong vocal approach that keenly conveys her heartfelt emotions on cuts like "What About You" and "Whether I'm Wrong." However, Crowe risks dulling her listener's sensibilities by singing so intensely on every cut. She needs to diversify the range of her voice more often to keep the music continuously interesting. The songs tend to blend together because her voice dominates every cut. This is a shame because the individual tunes have merit that could be more easily distinguished if Crowe's vocalizations changed as often as her use of musical styles.
Crowe offers an acapella version of a Celtic song as a secret bonus cut at the end of the disc. While there are elements of Irish folk music on several songs, the purity of the last cut is a real treat. Crowe understates the lyrics, which brings attention to the clarity of her vocals and the beauty of the melodic line. This reveals Crowe doesn't always have to sing forcefully to shine brightly.