Perhaps it was the old, fretless banjo on the album’s cover or the assertion that “DIRK POWELL IS A BADASS” on the back cover, but I had a lot of expectations for Dirk Powell’s latest album, Walking Through Clay. Maybe I just had two expectations: to hear old-timey banjo and to hear badass music. My expectations were not met. Now, if I had not read Steve Earle’s praise of Powell on the back cover of Walking Through Clay before my first listen, I may have come to appreciate Powell’s fourth solo album (his first with Sugar Hill Records) for what it is and not what I anticipated it to be. Walking Through Clay, is a departure for Powell – whose previous albums have mostly been covers of Appalachian or Cajun traditional songs or family field recordings – and it has the sound of someone who is in uncharted territory. It may have been the unmet expectations or it may have been the album itself, but Walking Through Clay left me wondering what Steve Earle’s definition of “badass” is.
Dirk Powell is, without a doubt, a talented musician. He has performed with a wide range of artists from Jack White to Joan Baez and has worked on and composed a number of film soundtracks. He plays instruments, like the diatonic button accordion, that most musicians, including Steve Earle, have attempted but not mastered. His knowledge and appreciation for a multitude of musical styles, traditional or otherwise, is formidable and present on Walking Through Clay. However, it is Powell’s range, his expertise on many instruments and his experience with many genres, that may be more of a detriment to this album than a benefit.
Walking Through Clay opens with the track “Rollin’ Round This Town”, a bluesy-rock tune with a good tempo and an electric guitar sound that makes it apparent he spent some time with the Raconteurs. I heard this song and thought that Powell’s foray into original songwriting would be an interesting and successful one. When I read the second track, the title track, was about his great-grandfather and the hardships he and his mother endured during the Civil War, I could not wait to listen to “Walking Through Clay”. I anticipated, due to the sound of the first song, a gritty electric guitar, maybe a sorrowful harmonica – something with a rock backbone, but with the emotion of rhythm and blues. “Walking Through Clay” turned out to be a generic, Top 40 country-sounding track with little to no emotional resonance. Switching from the sound of the first song to the second left me utterly confused and curious to see if the third track would bring it all together. “Some Sweet Day” reminded me of why Powell is more-often-than-not placed in the Americana genre, but did little to prove that this album was one cohesive thought.
The rest of Walking Through Clay bounces between blues, Americana, traditional Appalachian, country and New Orleans jazz in disorderly fashion. The most enjoyable song on the album is actually not an original, but a traditional hymn arranged by Amy Helm and Powell, with drums by the late, great Levon Helm. “Abide With Me” has great harmonies, which help with Powell’s rather plain singing voice, and Levon Helm’s drumming blends beautifully with the New Orleans’ horn. The most moving original song, lyrically-speaking, on Walking Through Clay would have to be “Break the Chains”, a mid-tempo ballad that starts with him giving audio-engineering instructions to his daughter Amelia. Powell speaks to a friend and implores him to “Break the chains / Chains of sorrow / That got you bound to yesterday”. It is heartfelt in a way that I wish the rest of the album had been – especially since this is Powell’s first opportunity to present us with his own thoughts and feelings.
Sugar Hill Records describes Walking Through Clay as “the definition of Americana – a quilt that stitches together the past and present in a way that honors both.” I agree to a certain extent. Dirk Powell is indeed merging the past and present in honorable fashion. However, the quilt metaphor is particularly accurate. Walking Through Clay is a collection of very singular songs, each one representing a very different swatch of fabric. Some of the songs on this album are brightly colored and beautiful, while some of are dull, discolored, and artistically flat. Combining these two types of quilt squares may, in some cases, create a balanced whole, but, in the case of Walking Through Clay, it creates a disjointed blanket woven together with very thin thread.