Elliott Smith has been dead for three years, his last tracks have been mixed and released as 2003’s “From a Basement on the Hill,” and your vinyl copies of “XO” and “Figure Eight” have burned a hole in your record player. Where, then, sad indie boy or girl, are you to turn? Ashton Allen hopes it’s to “Dewdrops: An Ordinary Servant,” his debut album that has more than enough melancholy melodies and moody minor keys to keep you going until the next introspective indie rocker accesses the depths of your depression.
Ashton Allen, a 32-year-old singer-songwriter from Jacksonville, Fla., sounds like the second coming of Smith, but with peppier lyrics and a more camera-friendly mug. Vocally, the two are nearly identical, and Allen’s 12 years’ experience playing backup for Gainesville, Fla., band Big Sky have turned him into a capable creator of Elliott-esque harmonies with slow-strummed guitar, hushed vocals and rousing piano sections.
But Allen articulates the difference between himself and Smith best: “Talent-wise, I don’t think anyone holds a candle to the honesty and the artistry that he brought to the genre,” Allen said of Smith. Of what’s lacking in his own songs, Allen said, “the lack of artistry, the lyrical gaps – how can I count the ways?”
Allen shouldn’t be too hard on himself. “Dewdrops” departs from Smith’s music in interesting ways as well – most obviously, in its positivity. With Smith’s death – a self-inflicted knife wound to the heart – it can all get to be a bit, well, depressing. “God rest his soul,” Allen said. “I wish to God it could have turned out different for him.”
But of his own music, he added, “I’m as self-defeating as the next person, but ultimately, I don’t see it as doomed. I know how the book ends too, but I have faith in the bigger picture.”
What it lacks in the musical surprises of Elliott’s best (or even Elliott’s disappointments), “Dewdrops” makes up for in hopeful, romantic lyrics that (while often clich?d) are sure to draw him a wider audience than Smith’s cult of the strange. Allen jokes about the eclectic crowds his shows attract, “Remember W.W.F.? There was that guy, The Rock, and he was like, the People’s Champion? Self-proclaimed, you know? I like to call myself the self-proclaimed people’s singer-songwriter.”
But Allen never expected to gain a buzzing solo career at the age of 32. “It’s almost comical to me, because I never had the plan to do this,” Allen said. After a childhood in Jacksonville, where he said the music scene “was kind of nonexistent,” he attended college at the University of Florida in Gainesville. While there, he earned a degree in advertising and fell into music on the side. “I kind of caught the tail end of what was kind of a big focus on Gainseville,” Allen said. “People were saying that Gainesville was the next Seattle.”
For now, Allen is enjoying his national touring act. He has taken to snapping photographs of amusing sights on the road.
“Like we drove by a bar, and there was a sign that said “Free Pool With Pitcher” but the “L” fell off and it was so hilarious, and we took a picture of it.” That picture, along with a road sign for “Virginville” and a bank called “Blue Ball” dot a page of more serious publicity photos, showing that though his songs may be dark, he still has a lot to laugh about. n
Ashton Allen plays Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave E. Vienna, VA 22180, Friday with Peter Bradley Adams. $8.