Weekly (p)reviews: Cracking the surface with Marina Allen’s Candlepower; James Taylor and Jackson Browne ease back into arena waters

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The title of Marina Allen’s debut album Candlepower does exactly what the best album titles do: evoke a multitude of images in the mind of anyone who happens upon the record even before they’ve heard one note of it. 

For me, it suggests the delight of watching the propeller on a traditional German Christmas decoration spin as the air around it is charged by the heat of a candle. Or peering in at the recording sessions for Talk Talk’s haunting final albums, where the only light in the studio came from candles and oil projections and the equipment capturing the band’s nebulous sound. Or I imagine following Allen down a darkened hallway as she leads me to the plush, colorful playroom where she crafts her folk-pop delights.

Candlepower’s music is equally suggestive. Each song teems with lyrical turns that, even in their specificity, leave generous space for interpretation. On “Believer,” as a trundling rhythm by the album’s co-producer Ben Varian rattles away, Allen speak-sings her lines, “Do you wanna drive around with me? / Listening to Hejira through a blown out freedom scheme / I’m not trying to recreate the wheel you see / I just wanna hitch your wagon on to me.”

As the album opens, at first she’s singing about a fellow artist she adores (Louise Chicoine, who performs under the name Banny Grove), but as the song’s Zombies-esque bounce starts to settle down, Allen intones a series of aphorisms that reads like a self-help checklist: “Drink water / eat broccoli / love your neighbor / ask politely.”

The abundance within this album is, according to Allen, merely the result of “collecting these pieces” over a long period of time. Though she grew up in a household that encouraged creativity, she didn’t start writing songs until her late teens and it wasn’t until a few years after that that she felt comfortable enough to perform anything she wrote. 

“Even though I’ve been singing and I’ve been playing music all my life, it was very hidden,” Allen says, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “It took a lot of time for me to accept that that was who I was and celebrate that. I think of myself as a late bloomer in that way, but at the same time, there’s so much stuff that was growing underground. Now it feels like it’s cracking the surface.”

Helping germinate Allen’s music was a welcoming L.A. music community. After moving to the city in 2017, she fell in with some fellow artistic oddballs like Chicoine and ’70s-inspired soul/pop singer-songwriter Jonny Kosmo, and gig musicians like Varian, guitarist Eric Kinny, and harpist Jackie Urlik. All of them helped encourage Allen’s songwriting efforts, and many of them contributed to Candlepower.

Marina Allen.
Marina Allen.

The album didn’t reach full flower until the end of last year, when a copy of it landed in the inbox of Fire Records, the U.K. label that’s home to college rock icons Throwing Muses and The Chills as well as modern psych-pop misfits like Vanishing Twin and Jane Weaver. The imprint’s owner James Nicholls was immediately smitten and offered Allen a three-album deal. A thrilling turn of events for this young talent that was dimmed when the pandemic swept through the world. 

“I think it didn’t really bother me that much,” Allen says of not being able to celebrate the June 2021 release of her first album with a gig or tour. “I already surpassed so many of my expectations that it felt wrong to be bummed out about something or disappointed. I think if it had all happened at the same time, it would have been really overwhelming. There’s so much to mentally prepare for that I liked how there was this delay. I was able to catch up with myself.”

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The lockdown also gave her the time to continue to write material for her next full-length. Allen is a little cagey about what those might sound like, but it seems clear that the release of her first album on a well-known indie label has helped fuel her confidence. 

“It feels more like now I have the space to say what I really want to say,” she insists. “It feels a little more brave and less interested in subversion in a fun way that feels eclectic and still interesting. I’m going to give myself permission to really go there.”

Marina Allen opens for Mega Bog on Monday, November 1 at Holocene (1001 SE Morrison, Portland OR). 9 pm. $15. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination required for entry.

James Taylor & Jackson Browne @ Moda Center, October 25, 2021

My assumption is that, for the majority of the folks packed into the Moda Center last Monday, the boomer icon double bill of James Taylor and Jackson Browne was likely the first live music event they’ve attended in at least two years, if not more. And for most of those ticket holders, it was the ideal circumstances to get back into the swim of attending big concerts. There were COVID checks at every entrance, and most everyone kept their masks on when they weren’t quaffing a drink. 

James Taylor @ Moda Center, October 25, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
James Taylor @ Moda Center, October 25, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

The entire night also felt like a gentle easing back into the waters of the arena experience. The visual attractions of Taylor’s set—a large video screen and an array of lights dangling over the stage in the shape of leaves—were tasteful and rarely obtrusive. The volume was kept to a reasonable level, and the setlists for both acts were a balance of hits, easy on the ears new material, and tender sentiments expressed with warmth and empathy. Everyone in attendance had simple expectations of each performer and they were easily met. Any quibbles over songs left off the setlist (no “Your Smiling Face” or “Tender Is The Night”?) were forgotten in the midst of an extended standing ovation following “Fire and Rain.” 

Neither Taylor nor Browne, two artists comfortably in their 70s, left anything up to chance either. They were both surrounded by top notch session musicians of various levels of renown. Browne brought along crackerjack guitarists Greg Leisz and Val McCallum. Taylor had a stacked backing band that included the versatile drummer Steve Gadd, former Blues Brothers Band member “Blue” Lou Marini, and a gaggle of backing vocalists, one of whom was Taylor’s youngest son Henry.

Jackson Browne @ Moda Center, October 25, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Jackson Browne @ Moda Center, October 25, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

With well-rehearsed, well-polished shows like this, the only thing for a weathered critic like myself is to grab a hold of those unrehearsed, rough moments when they come. Like when Taylor was briefly put off his game when he realized an audience member had left a decorative paper pineapple on stage near his microphone. As he introduced “That’s Why I’m Here,” an affectionate ballad inspired by the death of John Belushi, hoping that it would touch those who have gotten sober, he couldn’t help but toss in, “Don’t worry. There are plenty of songs here for people who are fucked up, too.” It was a great laugh line that more than made up for his groaning dad jokes later in the night. 

While there has rarely been any sharp toothed edge to Taylor’s music, Browne added a layer of honky tonk dust to his early recordings. And the inclusion of Leisz and McCallum helped stir up a small cloud during the set. McCallum’s solos on “Doctor My Eyes” and “Running On Empty” were particularly grainy and heated—a welcome spark of freshness injected into those song’s familiar patterns.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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