Without getting terribly country-western in this opening sentence, I’ll submit the following: I’ve got friends in weird places, and sometimes, they sing pretty songs. I’ve loaded up the computer with a tall stack of music, and it’s all performed by one finicky and difficult near-ginger artist, my close friend, Allen Masterton. Allen’s one of those characters I hope are woven into the stranger stories about me long after I’m gone—two bearded freaks barreling down the interstate in a stolen school bus, hopped up on expired sugar alcohols and robbing every bank they see… sweet-corn everywhere. His day-to-day is funded by a priesthood in that big sterile cult Steve Jobs founded, peddling iPhones and routing a never ending traffic of cigarette jeans. The side stuff is his music, and with this very sentence I realize he’s my token “friend with a band.” Everyone’s got a friend with a band, and twelve times out of ten, they’re terrible—awful and out of pitch Coldplay imitations, high-schoolers molesting an electric guitar behind lyrics about something they can’t yet understand, and someone’s girlfriend is always involved. Can I be impartial? No. However, with Allen, I’ve always endeavored to be honest, complement sandwiches be damned. His notions on dieting and women are distorted like a circus mirror, he’s notorious for warping the details in everything he’ll ever tell you, and his voice is a sweet supple thing, capable of cradling you gently into the afterlife if you were to lose focus for just a moment or two.
Pulling from the driveway, we pop on his first album, The Glass Maiden, and it’s a messy heartfelt teenage ordeal—just like everything that goes on in your late teens-to-early-twenties. The running joke, “Who’s the hot chick singing,” is an easy target on his back, his countertenor range has you thinking about Bon Iver or a deliberate and angry kick to the bollocks. Digging up the full track listing for The Glass Maiden has been a little difficult, as Allen’s on a personal mission to cleanse the world of any work previous to his current, ashamed and vengeful for whatever hat he wore in the year previous. I see him in full Fahrenheit 451 regalia, wide-eyed maniacal laughter and a full-mast erection as he pours fire all over the Mona Lisa. I roll up the windows, fish around for a Diet Coke, and spend a few minutes on the highway relating to this notion.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m heading, but it’s late, there’s four hundred miles to go, and ex-girlfriends are yelling in my brain. The Transient and Eternal, Masterton’s next softly played acoustic driven album, is perfect fodder for stuff like this, old dates and failed intimacy flooding back through your veins. I asked him a few weeks ago about the album he’s currently working on. “So, how many of the songs are going to be about your ex-girlfriends?” He looked at me like I’d asked him how many bicycle tires he could fit into his mouth, and with flat eyebrows, answered, “All of them.” The Transient and Eternal is dark, and the lyrics betray a man in his early twenties tying to feel out what it means to write a serious song, but the makings of real talent are out and obvious now. Tracks like Symbiotic are engaging, chorus and refrain staying with you for the full four minutes and one second, the end of the song leading my finger away from the next piece of beef jerky and over to the “back” button on the stereo to repeat the song. Symbiotic is a great example of lyrics that are dark, murder-suicide kinds of over-arching weirdness, but it works in the context, and it’s almost playful. Tracks like If I Died—while composed beautifully—have me picturing a closet full of magazine cutouts, pinned strings and purple lipstick everywhere, latin nonsense written on the mirror and a strange smell coming from the shower.
Remnants is up next, and I think I’m somewhere in the dead night in the desert. The heat comes on, frigid outside the car, and after Masterton’s first two albums I’m considering selling all of my possessions and throwing myself naked off of a bridge. Remnants opens with a track called On This Lovely Day, and it’s first few bars mark a change in tone that reflects what we heard sparingly back in The Transient and Eternal, playful stuff, guitars that sound like fingers twirling around in spaghetti. The next track, just like the album, is Remnants, and it’s dipping all over the place with musical forethought. His dark bullshit is all over this album too, but not so much a full crimson saturation like the previous two records, just more like he’s filled his mouth with red paint and sprayed it over the liner notes.
Opus Contra Naturam is the ball buster of the album, a big bastard of a track that goes on for almost seven minutes—Masterton’s first crack at a more level headed Stairway to Heaven, but without trying to be too ambitious or wear a leather vest over his exposed ribs. We start to hear a man who’s been playing in front of audiences, who’s stopped fearing his own lyrics, and who’s been getting laid on semi-regular intervals. Opus rounds the whole thing out, a hump in the middle of my listening experience that wakes me back up and pulls me from the center line. Stargazer Lilies and Poetry lead us out of the album, and aside from the frilly names, they seem to drift back into the emotionally disturbed scrawling of a goth kid in the corner of study hall, instead of the new direction he’d just taken us with the first half of the album. It’s like the drugs wore off by the time he’d written those tracks, the eye opening nitrous binge had faded out—the world returning to its traditional desaturation—leaving Allen with only his hopeless lyrics, a bloody nose, and a dark bruise on his brain.
Somewhere I’d heard that for creative people, if you aren’t lugging around sufficient anxiety about your previous works, then that’s the solid mark that you aren’t improving. I get this, but Masterton takes it to devious new levels—from refusing to so much as play a guitar with a stranger in the room—to wrapping up his music with other people, musicians and non-musicians alike, people with whom he can shield himself from responsibility for his talent. “Say I’m in a band! Give it an esoteric name! Put their names first! Batten this thing down and wipe me from the rolls!” In twenty years, he’ll have over a hundred producers, two thousand total bodies involved in the album, and Masterton but a footnote in six point font. Florence tells us that “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back,” and Allen seems to have slung hell itself behind his shoulders.
Anita Exira is the one from a few years ago, the most recent one, and the only one he’ll discuss over coffee. It originally only came out on an actual vinyl pressed record, and the tracks have no names—two features which infuriate me in a special way that only the bizarre Icelandic nonsense band, Sigur Rós, can do. Anita Exira eventually made it to MP3 status, and I remember him talking about releasing the tracks to the next album online, for free, but every time he heads back to Arizona to record something, he returns with these old twisted ideas. He’s tried to explain his fruity methods on why this was, and why this, his next album, will be vinyl-only as well, but each time he runs me through the theory I feel more and more cemented into my shoes. I contend that if you want to make beautiful music but make it difficult for anyone to hear, that’s your own prerogative, but if you’re trying to explain it to me, it had better make the same sorts of sense it would if you were saying it while wearing a flowery dress and holding a carrot.
It’s the first album he produced professionally, recorded with others in an actual studio and mastered by one of those mythical creatures who know what all the knobs and levers do—probably Dr. Dre—I think I saw him do that once. My first listen-through to Anita Exira nearly brought me to tears, like a proud father or a man who’s been presented with an un-touched buffet. It’s only four tracks long, and it’s full of careful rhythms and stringed instruments, all kinds of new musical methods we’d yet to see Allen employ in previous works. I’ve got the car stereo turned up to full volume now, the tracks on this record designed to usher the day in from the night, stuff you should listen to when waking up, giving birth, or dropping acid.
The second track, later dubbed as Don’t Waste Your Breath, is sharp and produced, but I’ve got an acoustic-only recording that seems even more poignant. It’s a positive song, but it’s the kind of positive you need when you’re headed into the next life, or after the death of something close. Allen’s music on this album is less about wondering why a woman might scorn, and more about grabbing her by the hips and whispering Spanish obscenities into her ear. His trademark darkness is still here, but it’s been caged and tempered, and Masterton wields it like a man that’s flipping off his twenties and learning how to properly groom facial hair.
I love the man dearly, and he’s a talent that I’d recognize even if we hadn’t been friends for over ten years. You can buy Anita Exira on iTunes for a little under four bucks, and I’d recommend you do it, but I understand that I’m a little biased. It’s written and recorded by a man who has pure musical talent, but also by a man that I’ve personally witnessed falling down the stairs, a man who’ll eat long expired deli meats in my presence, a man who slept off dental surgery in the upstairs of my house and drooled into my chair—maybe I’m a little more connected to it all than other listeners. I’m almost to my destination now, the morning breaking open as I finish Allen’s latest album and slowly turn the volume down, arriving in some-town in some-place, trying to close out this terrible metaphor.
Allen’s music in this episode:
Opus Contra Naturam
Don’t Waste Your Breath (album)
Don’t Waste Your Breath (acoustic)
Anita Exira on iTunes