Sure enough, wherever you dive into this CD, you're certain to emerge with a glistening genuine pearl of a song. Allie's a singer-songwriter based in the Scottish Borders, but though she's been performing solo up and down the country for some years, this is her début CD.
There's a telling maturity about Allie's writing, with a sure grasp of structure married to admirably direct expression of often difficult sentiments through a simple but effective poetic language. Many of her songs deal with disillusionment, though tempered with optimism (for example Backstreet Girl, The Meaning of Love and the title track all have messages of encouragement and hope for all of us), and displaying sensitivity and poignancy without a trace of self-pity (just listen to the gorgeously wistful Birdwoman).
As a singer she has a fine range, clear diction and a strong vocal presence, with distinct shades of Sandy Denny - not in any imitative sense, but more in the rounded purity of her emotional expressiveness. Allie's also an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist, but with a light and airy touch that comes from having learnt the virtue of restraint.
Innate musicality is also a feature of the musical arrangements, which though accessible and listenable also possess a vibrant contemporary edge. The album's producer, Iain McKinna, has done a grand job here, bringing extreme clarity to often relatively dense instrumental textures with the quality of relaxed poise that was a feature of his earlier project, Mike Heron's Where the Mystics Swim. That connection is carried further too, with the presence of other Incredible Acoustic Band members Dave Haswell (busy as ever on various items of percussion) and guitarist John Rutherford (who contributes some truly beautiful solo work).
The melancholy of I Was Wrong is enhanced by Jimi McRae's Border pipes and a sympathetic, understated string arrangement by Allie's late brother, Malcolm. The subtle freshness and tenderness of the musical settings aptly mirror those very qualities in Allie's songs; the musical idiom is primarily melodic and mellow contemporary folk, but the occasional departures (like Joe Louis Blues and the intriguing combination of swamp-cajun and Soho-blues on Moon Above the Rooftops) are also most invigorating.
In short, if you admire well-crafted and meaningful songs, like those of Chris While or Julie Matthews, then dive in and treat yourself to Allie's inordinately fine CD.
Great albums by singer-songwriters seem to be a bit scarce these days, so it was a very pleasant surprise to hear this one. Certainly, you could easily pass over the dull sepia cover of Diving for Pearls mistaking it for yet another dull self-indulgent piece of navel-gazing. In this case you'd be very mistaken and also be missing out on what is possibly one of the best albums of the year.
The songs here convey a mixture of happiness and sadness, joy and longing through quality lyrics, superb catchy tunes and a quality of musicianship and production seldom found on debut albums, particularly those on small labels. After just one listen I found myself humming a couple of the songs, and not long after, three or four more.
The opening track Out of the Blue is a bouncy, tuneful pop song with a slightly soulful feel about it - the sort of song you can't help tapping your foot to.
My favourite track comes next - the slower Spanish-feeling Backstreet Girl; the guitar playing of maestro John Rutherford certainly adds to what is in any case a great song which is reminiscent in places of the Al Stewart classic On the Border.
Probably the most commercial track on the album, Marguerita, also has a Spanish feel to it along with the most hummable tune you've heard in ages. If it wasn't for the quality of singing and the arrangement, this could easily be considered a throwaway track, but here it serves its purpose well in lifting both the tempo and mood of the album at the critical mid-point.
The Meaning of Love is an altogether different thing - a quality love song up there with the best. Here Allie bares her soul without sounding the least bit introspective or pretentious. I shall be surprised if either the original or a cover of this song doesn't appear in the charts at some point in the near future - if it doesn't then there is no justice!
Also worth a mention are The Moon Above the Rooftops, a finger-pickin' bluegrass arrangement gives yet another dimension to the album. The final track Joe Louis Blues has perhaps the most powerful and heartfelt lyric on the album; it concerns the plight of boxer Joe Louis who fought his way to the top against oppression and racism in pre-war America. It packs a powerful social message and rounds off the album well.
Allie has come up with a gem of an album. Shortly to be re-released with much wider distribution, it should soon get the wider airing it so richly deserves.