There were a couple directions Amy Allen could have taken to follow up her 2010 pop-lovely debut EP, Honey, released just as she headed off to the big city for college. Did she immerse herself in Kierkegaard, "mature," and get all kinds of moody/emo?
In fact, she embraced her pop inclinations (with a hint of twang) ever more. Of Honey, I wrote: Jerks of Grass' Carter "Logan's acoustic guitar soloing and the fiddling are really cool sound elements, actually, since this kind of pop would normally have an electric rock guitar and synthesizers and probably manufactured beats."
Makes sense, then, that EP #2, Neptune, is full of synthesizers and rock guitar, but with Allen's acoustic guitar mixed in and a normal-sounding drum kit. It straddles a few different worlds, with songs that could sound almost equally at home on WCLZ (adult contemporary), WJBQ (top 40), and WTHT (pop-country). They are catchy as hell, and easy to sing along to, but don't travel all the way down that top 40 road full of digital beats and a full-on eschewing of actual instruments.
"Neptune," the opening track, might give you pause, though. When it leads with a digital, swirling, wicka-wicka kind of non-instrument, you might get flashes of Gaga-lite. But producer Jonathan Wyman (and co-producer on this track, Spencer Albee) makes the smart decision to always keep Allen's voice front and center, which is the sort of thing that dispels fears in a hurry.
She's got an agile set of pipes, but Allen's not an Idol-style yeller by any means, and there are all kinds of little trills and sustains and a general vocal playfulness that carries this record.
In "Slipping Slow," it's the way she emphasizes each of the three syllables of "beautiful" with a piercing punctuation when she sings the chorus of "because you're so beautiful to me," and then polishes it off with a staccato "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh," that's pure throwback pop. In "Calling All (Hearts of Stone)," it's the way she rhymingly riffs on "calling" and "falling" in the chorus.
Heck, when she drops down in the register during the latter for "I been thrown around, up and down/Still I'm walking tall and proud," she might be a young Shania Twain. The one pop trapping this girl definitely does not need is Auto-Tune (well . . . I'm pretty sure, anyway).
There's a nagging feeling, though, that if Allen had gone all Kierkegaard and moody, and maybe done something like Jolie Holland's Escondida, it would have really been spectacular. It's a bit much to ask something like that of a 20-year-old songwriter, of course, but Neptune might leave some wishing for that spectacular voice matched with some material possessing more emotional gravity, something akin to the covers record used to introduce the 16-year-old Birdy to the world (such as the "American Boy" cover on the last EP, actually).
As it is, the material is pretty exclusively guy-girl, holding-hands, lovey-dovey stuff. Which is completely fine — just maybe a lost opportunity. Certainly, there will be any number of winsome young men wishing they were named differently so as to be the object of "Oh Peter": "I want to be the girl you say 'I love you' to-ooo." Here we finally get the prominent acoustic guitar the album's cover might make you expect, with a clap clap-clap in the chorus to ramp things up. The move from the bridge to the final couple of takes through the chorus gets the heart racing nicely, too.