Dot Allison – Room 7 1/2

January 01, 1970



Wipe those E-stained cobwebs from your brain, punters, and
cast back to 1993, when Scottish outfit One Dove issued their lone full-length,
Morning Dove White, a heady blend of
clubfloor-friendly anthems, ambient-laced dubadelica and Saint Etienne-styled
dancepop that yielded a handful of memorable hits (“Fallen,” “Breakdown,” “White
Love”). Sadly, they split before mustering a followup, missing out on the
incoming trip-hop wave – they surely would’ve been embraced by the legions of
Portishead, Bjork, Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps, Faithless, etc. fans – but not
before introducing the world to their immensely gifted singer, Dot Allison.


Allison was somewhat constrained while with One Dove,
typically delivering her breathy coos and partially recited vocals while
cocooned in an echoey/phased blur of keyboards, guitars and electronics. Yet
there was no avoiding being seduced by her Sarah Cracknell-meets-Julee Cruise
voice, either, and while Allison has hardly been the most prolific of solo
artists since then, on those times she has surfaced she’s never been less than
delightful, from guesting with artists such as Death In Vegas, Arab Strap, and
Babyshambles, to her three solo albums (1999’s Afterglow, 2002’s We Are
and 2007’s Exaltation of
; there was also a high-profile appearance on the 2008 Scott Walker
tribute, 30th Century Man).
Now comes Room 7 ½, issued last fall
in the UK and now finally getting a proper North American release (digitally, via iTunes), co-produced
by Allison and Rob Ellis of PJ Harvey fame and featuring guest appearances by Paul
Weller and Pete Doherty plus backing on most tracks by members of the Bad
Seeds. It is, in a word, a culmination – of all that potential One Dove fans spotted early on, and of all the
experience Allison’s accumulated over the course of two decades of music-making
both on- and under-the-radar.


The foregoing sentence should signal to you that the album’s
a diverse affair, and it is. There are fragile filigrees of piano-powered pop
(“Cry,” with former Bad Seed Mick Harvey on ivories; Allison co-wrote the song
with Peter Gabriel, incidentally); loamy, psychedelic-tinged folkrock (“Paved
With A Little Pain” suggests a cross between Sandy Denny and Mazzy Star);
haunting slices of ethereal chamber music (“Fall To Me” has strings, piano and
glockenspiel and summons up anew those early Julee Cruise comparisons); even
pulsing, throbbing, big beat rock ‘n’ roll (the horns-draped “Portrait Of the
Sun”). Weller and Doherty watchers will find themselves alternately charmed and
bemused by their heroes’ guest spots: the former’s “Love’s Got Me Crazy” is
distinctively Swell Season-ish in its tender duet, while the latter’s “I Wanna
Break Your Heart” is appropriately ramshackle, with Allison playing the role of
a punk rock pixie and Doherty her woozy-headed suitor. Also included is the
Scott Walker song, a stately cover of “Montague Terrace (in blue).”


Yet it’s the record’s most uncharacteristic (for Allison)
tune that emerges as its most memorable; the stylistic turnaround brings to
mind the way Natalie Merchant startled fans a few years ago when she plunged
deep into Americana, although in performance Allison has been known to cover the likes of Neil Young and Tim Buckley. “Jonny
Villain,” co-written by Allison and guitarist Neil McArthur, is structured like
a vintage British murder ballad, with a Celtic-flavored acoustic guitar melody
adorned by militaristic percussion, mournful harmonica and hints of keyboards
and trumpet. Allison spins a fateful tale of the miscreant title character (last
name with the French pronunciation vil-lane) who loved and robbed his way through
life only to meet a sorry ending “with his neck broke in two/ lying on the
street where he got somebody’s boot/ all because he lied about how he divi’d up
the loot.”


Allison emits a chilling “whooo-ooohh-oooh,” as if a
one-person Greek chorus carried forth from a distance on the wind, then picks
up the narrative:



“That little girl he
took a needle to
Little tinker-bell he nearly killed her too
Virgin beauty queen not a day past seventeen
For heaven’s sake Jonny Villain.


 No Jonny he never worked for a
nickel or a dime
Run on his own will his rank device
But now he’s fallen foul of men that eat young men alive
Poor poor poor villain


Jonny he’s still knocking at Heaven’s
Pleading he’s more than just a sum of his own traits
Begging to re-live his life a different way
Not to be a heartless, dangerous bad cat.”


Poor, poor Jonny; one reckons he’s not gaining entry to Heaven anytime soon.
It’s a vividly-wrought, cinematic-in-tone song one you can easily imagine being
adapted and turned into a swashbuckling period film – or at the very least,
covered enthusiastically by Richard Thompson.


In a sense, anyone approaching this album with specific expectations may
find themselves confounded. It’s certainly not trip-hop; it’s considerably far
removed from the lush pop textures of Afterglow;
and only in places does it flirt with the electronic vibe of Science or the folk/psych stylings of Exaltation. Instead, Room 7 ½ appears to be as pure a
distillation of Allison’s collective muse as one could imagine, an album that
unfolds gradually, over repeated listens, and over time. Open the door – she
left it unlocked for you, after all – and see what awaits within.


Standout Tracks: “Jonny
Villain,” “Paved With A Little Pain,” “Fall To Me” FRED MILLS


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