Mr. Isaac Allen‘s debut record, Don’t Smoke, shines light on the darkness of human life in his portion of urban New England, from crack houses to prisoner parents and pawning wedding rings for the next brief high. Don’t Smoke’s irony is not smug; it’s the only tool for psychological self-preservation when you, too, are part of those hovels of which you write. The contrast of the stark lives portrayed in the lyrics with the elaborate band backing the songs keeps Allen’s tunes from just being intellectual exercises, and instead draws in listeners to what would otherwise be a devastating examination of urban blight.

The fact that Allen himself has been part of this world, keeps the songs from being “social worker-esque;” they do not point out the foibles of “those poor people,” rather they illuminate the interactions on very personal levels and let the listener experience the social commentary–not just hit you over the head with it. Given Allen’s atypical youth, it’s fairly surprising that he ended up in the decrepit part of New Haven.

From an early childhood filled with the arts in the States, to life as the child of a “medical missionary” in Borneo, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia listening to his dad’s old blues records, Allen’s descent into escapism, adventure, and addiction started young. He finally amassed his lyrics stored in cardboad boxes, on the backs of unpaid bills and crumpled receipts into hundreds of songs. With the help of his production team, he viciously culled his catalog into the tunes that are included on Don’t Smoke. Within our conversation, Allen’s take on the power of songs to change the world is particularly revealing.


Songs in Episode #1206 Include:

  • 3 from Mr. Isaac Allen
  • one from Greg Brown‘s latest
  • a James Taylor tune that may surprise you
  • a Bob Marley song demonstrating the personal power of music
  • one from a somewhat obscure 1970’s Southern Rock band, Thunderhead, that is also part of the Horizon Records catalog, and demonstrates the emotional contrast of songs shining light on darkness, or worse, apathy in the face of darkness
  • a sneak peek at next week’s feature, Brett Detar (The entire album, Bird in the Tangle, is available for free download from his site.)

This episode does not include, but does reference, the incredible chain gang recordings of Alan Lomax. More about Lomax here.
Photo Credit on Front Page: A. Wallach