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Published: 2002/04/22
by Michael Lello

Action – The Ally

HCP Records 36682

Forget Haight-Ashbury. Forget Seattle. Forget Athens, Georgia, and
Burlington, Vermont, too.

Philadelphia is where it's at right now.

What else can be said about a city that, in the last five years, has given
us The Disco Biscuits, Townhall and now The Ally?

Like the Biscuits, The Ally (Mike Greenfield, drums; Kimbo, vocals, violin,
viola, sax, Fender Rhodes, programming; Ira Wolf Tuton, vocals, bass; Eric
Zeiler, guitars, programming) hail from University of Pennsylvania. And
because they share an affinity for electronica like their fellow Ivy
Leaguers (as well as the jamband tag), it's natural, and not completely
unfair, to compare them to the Biscuits. But The Ally, only one album into
their career, have already asserted a voice of their own.

The debut disc, Action, is teeming with the band's self-proclaimed
"roots fusion". Like many of the best bands out there, The Ally combines
styles to the point of requiring a new label, but at the same time retain a
distinctive signature sound throughout. And, while Im on the subject of
labels, I might as well do something else musicians hate: compare them to
other musicians. My first impressions were a combination of 311, Rusted Root
and the Disco Biscuits.

The opening track, "Wooden Boat", is a breath of fresh air with its low-maintenance organ line and smooth lead vocal, ala Duncan Sheik or Guster. It's funk, but in a more introspective, ambient, Portishead kind of way. Horns crescendo, but not too much, and a chilled jam ensues. This song, like much of the disc, transports the listener to a different space, makes you lose track of time and forces you to press repeat when you come up for air.

"Church Bells" is driven by a breakbeat on a tight piccolo snare drum —
which sounds crystal clear thanks to pristine production. A violin adds some
Celtic flair. "Afar Girl" is another standout (heck, the whole disc is a
standout) and produces a choppy, angular violin-driven jam reminiscent of
Dave Matthews Band. The lead vocals here also display a kinship with the
rough-hewn but pleasant stylings of Matthews and Peter Gabriel.

"Options", is built around a reggae beat and features vocals that sound
strikingly like 311's S.A. Martinez. Unfortunately for The Ally, the lyrics
include some hackneyed attempts at social consciousness, ala 311 at their
worst — "I fight for real freedom in my own general way," The Ally sings
and, for the first time, we are reminded that these aren't seasoned
veterans. That's not a knock on The Ally. It's a compliment that they've
already made us expect more from them only four songs into their work.

On "Dear Mr. Gold," we are exposed to The Ally's techno leanings for the
first time. Interestingly, these blips and bleeps, a stranger until this
point, become a staple sound throughout the rest of the album. A cool segue
from "Inner Pilot" gives a glimpse of what this ensemble must sound like
live, and after some Biscuitesque drum and bass grooves, they slip into a
space-age jam that bumps them into "2CE", another platform for some
innovative techno-flavored grooves.

Many young bands with talent have the chops to blaze but not the ideas or
originality to match. The Ally, though, has the know-how to back up their
skills. With the group's members still attending school, their touring
schedule is limited. I'm not going to suggest they drop out of college, but
the my selfish side is itching to see what they do when this becomes their
full-time gig.

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