Willie Reviews David Allred’s “The Cell”

Willie Reviews David Allred’s “The Cell”


David Allred’s The Cell is, in a word, benevolent. I cannot think of a more good-hearted effort of late. It reveres every time the hammer hits the piano string, and stays just as long as it needs to. RPM’s review:

It takes a mind at peace to realize our real limits of listening. The effort and power put into great works is wondrous and frightening. To know, then, what we are actually capable of comprehending is a gift. A few notes placed carefully may well be the edge of our understanding. David Allred’s The Cell sticks to that game. He sings and plays piano (with lots of pedal), conjuring the sweet devotion of Judee Sill and the deceptively modest songwriting of Molly Drake. There are only seven tracks, a few of which could be called interludes. I would use the word efficient, but Allred at the piano is not efficient. Efficient implies the expectation of some kind of yield, whereas his music is potent but ultimately content with itself. You’ll never be tricked, and the songs are welcoming. Won’t you convert to the religion of minimal songwriting?

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Allred’s style takes a lot from the German lieder and the art song tradition in general, and not just because both include piano and voice. Art songs are often stripped down and porous, with less of the exclusivity and density of other works in the classical repertoire. In their intimate performance, you’re following only a few harmony lines, not dozens. Beyond that, their brevity makes the structure all the more apparent. Though the songs on The Cell are much further stripped down, the same principles apply. There is often a cyclical buildup and release of tension that repeats without the stakes of a more dramatically-minded piece. Cycles are what drive “The Cell” and “Nature’s Course.” Sketched out by the piano and then bolstered by Allred’s voice, they roll quietly. He sings, “Nature’s course will have a plan,” expecting that to come and knowing it will. The presence of repeats that simply duplicate is often what kills intimacy in art songs of old, at least to our ears. But at that point, The Cell diverges. The choice is not to subdue the emotive element by placing it fully into the beauty of the composition; instead, Allred takes cues from psalms and hymns, holding the songs gently and nurturing them.


David Allred, photo from Erased Tapes

The instrumental tracks on the album are, curiously, the ones that ask more questions. His voice has a tendency to resolve the tensions of the vocal compositions, but the uncertainty doesn’t always come to an end on tracks like “Mandatory Soul” and “Full Moon.” As it turns out, this problem is itself explained by the last track, “Lexington Hill.” It brings in a full band of instruments to supplement the piano and fill the void of the vocals. It ends up being the most affectionate of the songs, helped along by an extremely Judee Sill-like arpeggio on the piano. It’s the kind that almost seems to lead into a chorus of voices, but doesn’t. Allred proves himself a master at holding back the payoff until the very end, if ever.

What elevates the songs further is Allred’s voice, like air blown through a long tube. He uses vibrato sparingly, and largely removes any personal affectations from the equation. His voice services the beauty of the composition. Again and again, he uses interesting vocal leaps as the centerpieces of songs. He unexpectedly jumps a fifth on “Nature’s Course,” and zig-zags between registers on “The Cell.” This is his furthest point from psalm in his songwriting. It’s what you notice immediately as the outlier of the sound, but still can’t explain. It does the work that he knows he doesn’t have to, and it maintains the peace of sound that serves the music so well. In keeping with the spirit of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

Score: Tender, never maudlin.