It's a family affair

The annals of stories surrounding records made by or about father and son relationships are full of the bittersweet, the coulda-been and after-the-fact recriminations and reconciliations. Rock 'n' roll musicians thrive on a culture where a rift between generations creates tension that results in artful expression. And then there are those rare occasions of intergenerational confluence, which is the case with the Livonia-based duo, Arranged Marriage, who've just released their debut full-length, Dearly Beloved. It's not just a collaboration between father and son but between '60s pop and '90s reflection. Mostly it's the work of two men — 55-year-old Brad Allen and his son, 26-year-old Scott Allen — who have shared a lifelong love of rock music and have learned a way to give voice to their interesting synthesis, which thrives on a mutual love of DIY experimentation.

The younger Allen is perhaps best known as the tambourine warrior in both the late-lamented Red Shirt Brigade and the indie-successful local standouts Thunderbirds Are Now! — a band firmly under the guidance of Scott's older brother, Ryan. During a TAN! show, Scott's antics and contributions to the manic spazz-pop demonstrated him to be a fresh-faced hybrid of hypester and sideman — a collision of Happy Mondays' Bez and Brainac's Timmy Taylor. But Scott's doing an awful lot to leave that impression behind by fronting Big Mess, a country-infused sound far removed from the sound and 'tude of TAN! And now Arranged Marriage creates the sort of classic pop music that has always been at the core of this father-and-son musical relationship.

"I kinda realized at a certain point that I'm an old soul," Scott admits. "I love Dylan, Nilsson, Nick Drake ... and that comes from my dad. I would hear it later on and respond to it emotionally because I had listened to it a lot when I was younger."

Interestingly, Allen the elder has been in bands since he was in his 20s.

"I was always in some kind of band back then. We were kinda like the human karaoke band for a while," he laughs. "Singing 'Brown Eyed Girl' or 'Pretty Woman' — all the songs that were out of my era."

As his kids grew into music-curious munchkins, he certainly didn't discourage it.

"If you're a golf pro and you live on a golf course and you have a bunch of golf clubs they're probably gonna play some golf," says Brad. "They would come down and watch us play. And you'd see them slide over to the drums and bang on 'em a little bit. Before you know it, you'd come home and hear 'em banging on 'em."

As Ryan and Scott got more into it, they basically took over the family home.

"This was always set up to be the practice house," Brad says. "Ryan was playing in bands when he was 14 — and Scott wasn't very far behind."

 As for the genesis of this project, Brad says: "We'd be sitting around and ask each other, 'Whaddya want to do tonight?' It was always 'Let's go downstairs and work on a song.'"

The duo would play acoustic guitars and throw ideas back and forth. Over the course of the past two years — between tours and other commitments (like, er, day jobs) — they managed to write several albums worth of material. Then they brought the ideas to life. Think about it: Lots of dads and sons are content to kill six hours on the golf course on a Sunday afternoon. But these two took that time to engage their imaginations and curiosity.

 "I've always loved the recording process," Brad says. "Digging into how the Beatles did it — all those sounds and ideas — with such limited resources and creating these obscure sounds that might not be found in a guitar, drums and bass setup.

"We actually used a plastic trash can as a bass drums on a lot of these songs," Brad continues, laughing. "We said, like, 'Let's use that or let's play our belly. Let's use our shoes to make a different percussive sound behind it.'

"And then we both agreed on the idea of the song structures — melodic and a little old school and a little experimental at the same time. Wilco was a band that Scotty introduced me to and that kind of excited me to the possibilities of recording."

That Wilco "process" influence certainly shows up on Dearly Beloved. But the record is, ultimately, a love letter to indie-rock and classic power pop as genres. Without citing too many points of reference, suffice it to say that the hooks are not just resoundingly, intoxicatingly familiar ... but rather they take time-honored paths to guitar-based rock beauty and emotion and illuminate some unseen corners along the way, too.

In many ways, the release of Dearly Beloved is the culmination of another relationship — namely the one between the Allen family and the Suburban Sprawl label. The Livonia-based imprint is now part of the larger Quack! Media family. But it started as a DIY indie founded by pals of the Allens. Indeed, the elder Allen recorded many of the label's first releases by various band right there in the family basement.

"The studio and Suburban Sprawl have evolved together," says the paternal one. "When the label began, I recorded Javelins, as well as Thunderbirds, on a four-track. Then we went to 8-track. And now I've got the ProTools setup where I can do records like this one. It's been a really exciting process!"

And Scott agrees: "It was my first experience in music where I didn't have this constant sort of disagreement with someone about how to get stuff done," he says. "I like non-tension way better. When you see things eye to eye, it's really fun to be with someone who's really not having an ego get in the way.

"These songs are almost like a snapshot of a trip — but instead of a journey, it spotlights that month of our lives we spent creating this disc."

"We all speak the language of music," Brad says of his family. "We're related by blood, of course, but it's multiplied due to this other secret language of music. I can't put it into specific words to describe it. But it's one of those things that have brought us, father and son, very, very close together."

"It's a marriage of a father and son," Brad says of the duo's name, which Ryan had suggested. "Not in a weird way, though. It's a marriage of a couple of people who have been doing something together, almost from birth. We were actually gonna call it Cuba Libre at first," Brad laughs. "That's our beverage of choice on many late nights. My wife has had to put up with a bit over the years — with us laughing our asses off at 3 in the morning. She's probably thinking 'Will these assholes ever go to bed?' But it's worth it. We're proud of what we did and I enjoy the shit out of it."

Scott puts it all in perspective and simultaneously gets a little schmaltzy.

"Throughout all this," Scott says, "we definitely got a lot closer than we already were — which was pretty close. He really, truly is my best friend. Even though I've done a bit of really really cool things with other musical partners, there's nothing better than coming downstairs and putting together something awesome that only takes three and a half minutes to listen to with my dad."

Of course, all this family bonding would mean very little to anyone if the songs weren't there. But they are. Arranged Marriage has produced that rare breed of recording that has the songs to back up this cool backstory.

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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