As oxymoronic as the phrase “digital soul” would appear to be, the internet era of music distribution has given rise to a new wave of soul revivalists from all over the globe. The latest retro-soul man to get the blogosphere buzzing is Chewelah, WA’s Allen Stone, whose self-titled sophomore release combines robust instrumentation and memorable melodies to make its largely derivative track list feel relatively fresh and organic.
At his best, Stone shines with an easy comfort, boyishly exuberant voice, and slightly off kilter song writing style that separates him from many of his peers who stick slavishly to the Smokey or Stevie schools song craft. “Sleep” juxtaposes a dirty funk bassline and church-style handclaps against folk-ish lyricism, evoking images of the open landscapes and wild animals of his Northwestern stomping grounds. The slow burner, “Wind” adapts the same template, with airy horns opening up the thick soul groove and accentuating Allen’s nature-based metaphors.
Stone is less successful when adopting the pose of straight ahead, cornbread and collard green soul man. The crushing drums and explosive horns of the blues rocker “Satisfaction” will give even the strongest speakers a workout, but Stone ultimately feels small and tentative, initially getting lost in the ruckus, and ultimately straining to try to compete with it. Similarly, the he seems out of his depth cooing generic laments about the state of the world on “What I’ve Seen.” His weariness doesn’t seem to come so much from what he has actually seen of the world, but from what he has heard of it in other, funkier, songs.
For all his clear reverence for the raw soul of the ‘70s, it’s possible Stone artistic reference points should come from the following decade, when the sweet melodic blue eyed soul of Hall & Oates ruled that charts. What his voice lacks in grit and raw power, it makes up for in tenderness and nuance, which coupled with his gift for melody makes the closing ballads, “In Your Eyes” and “Unsure” go down as smooth and easy as Bartles & James wine coolers.
Allen Stone doesn’t quite succeed in giving the singer a sound apart from the rest of the digital soul crowd. But, mark him as one of its more talented interlopers. There are hints, here, of a unique identity that leaves the listener with the sense that Stone’s musical journey is just getting started.