“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
—Frederich Nietzsche, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part I.
Doug Powell is smart and talented and frustrated and thinks enough to be more than just a bit unhappy, I’d wager. Maybe one or any of those factors leads to the end product, and perhaps his past history in the music business doesn’t help matters much either, but from this personal chaos Mr. Powell has indeed given birth to a dancing star. In his first effort on Parasol, Powell has turned his almost one-man show (Prairie Prince plays drums on one track) into an astronomical event. The Lost Chord is a musical supernova, a fascinating and often experimental journey that explodes in your earphones as it captivates throughout.
This is not easy listening, nor is there any real “single” here. Maybe there’s a slow dance you can wreak out of a track or two—but this is music for listening, the kind of stuff that transcends—atmospheric, moody, expansive and all over the musical realm. Powell’s studio prowess is in evidence right from the get-go, magical and heavy and reflecting that inner chaos to the benefit of his listeners.
Just as Nietzsche challenged traditional foundations with his philosophical beliefs, Powell does the same for pop musical expectations in this new millennium. He takes on the philosopher and the figureheads, the magician and the modern world with lyrics smart and obscure enough to escape any easy analysis.
Powell’s musical statement is a cumulative philosophy—these are songs about broken dreams and the search for truth. It’s a total “uber-experience” that really proves worthwhile. As such, allow me to take you on a mini-guided tour.
The CD opens with a gong, electronically enhanced laughing, noises, percussion and general electronic cacophony building into the harmonies of the sung title “Merlin Laughed”. This is a minor-key song of warning, of predicting evils to come (“the future’s a stranger with a familiar laugh / it won’t obey, so please don’t ask”), as the great magician chuckles at our eventual fate.
This leads into “Nietzsche Is Dead (v.1)”, a short bit of music-hall operetta complete with old-fashioned record scratch sounds, celebrating God’s last laugh against the philosopher. Powell is clever here, if obscure to most: “He could not find God / the items on his nihilist / He determined did not exist / so at God he swung a mighty fist/ but it’s Nietzsche that is dead”.
This takes us into “A Roar Boring Alice”, the first track that shows off Powell’s magnificent voice (he’s a natural lead, emotive and reminiscent of many past pop heroes, capable of belting it out or toning it down accordingly). This is wonderful pop territory, great ringing double-tracked guitars and a nice drum/bass line leading us up and down around the vocals that tell the story of this clueless Alice, who manages to ignore her reality and have no regard for the truth.
A “Strawberry Fields Forever”-like organ heads the intro into “Baby Blue”, another vocal tour-de-force. Prairie Prince pounds the skins in this slow-paced ballad to frustrated dreamers the world over: “Rome fiddled while Nero burned / and nothing obeyed / and this useless passion yearned / and so with some enchanted loom / you wove beautiful lies you wished were true”. The production values are very familiar—Beatles and Badfinger and Jeff Lynne/ELO and Todd Rundgren and then some.
Powell takes the percussion reins on the beat-driven “Queen of Hurts”. This time the clueless one is a bored object of worship, a queen hell-bent on unhappiness and pain. You get fuzz/reverb guitars and enough noise to wake the neighbors.
The title track offers up lovely melodic piano battling the sonic wail of a background guitar and its disturbing feedback. The effect is intentionally unnerving, echoing the lyrics. This is yet another tale of a man broken, dreams remolded and choking.
This leads into the single guitar strum that breaks into the full organ and synth-horn arrangement of “Cul-De-Sac”. This is a declamation against routine and comfort, the trap of getting caught up in the familiar, and ultimately a cry to break out from it. Powell does a good job with ambitious lyrics and again beefs up the production in ways that challenge your beliefs that it’s only one man playing and singing it all.
“The Palace of a Sigh” is another piano ballad that, in this reviewer’s opinion, would work perfectly as a theme to some new James Bond film (really, give it a listen and see). There are the strings and the electronic/synth static and the low tremolo guitar lead, backing up this very pretty song about discovering the truths behind and within.
Strange repetitive percussion sounds (think Pink Floyd’s “Money” and then some) lead the lovely “Machina.” This infectious melody works like a well-oiled machine, again reflecting the meaning contained within. Powell exposes machines as a destroyer of truth; a poor substitute: “Just another pretty puppet / of pantomime and of shadow / It’s a currency of gesture / Nothing bought and nothing sold”.
Next up it’s back to music hall fun with another near minute of “Nietzsche Is Dead (v.2)” (poor Nietzsche). The CD wraps with the poignant “She Walks on Water”, all about a paradox of a woman: “She walks on water / she swims upon the shore.”
Powell includes the lyrics (though they remain obscure in meaning at times, necessarily) and also does the graphic design for the CD, including a tasteful montage of eclectic items (he really is a Renaissance man).
The son of a physicist and a flautist, Powell grew up in Oklahoma and made his way to the limelight by impressing Jules Shear with a demo tape. Shear then produced a demo tape that lead to the RCA signing and recording of Ballad of the Tin Men. RCA dropped Powell, but Mercury eventually released the CD (and sent Powell a-touring with Todd Rundgren). Rundgren and Powell forged a friendship, and Rundgren produced the demos for the next album. Mercury dropped Powell, but Not Lame released this material as Curioser and also another set of originals (More).
In 2001, Powell was an integral member of Swag, a group comprised of an all-star line-up from other band members (Sixpence None the Richer, Wilco, Mavericks). After a Japanese EP release Venus de Milo’s Arms, Powell has his first release on Parasol.
While this may seem to some an odd collection of music, it’s well worth the headphones and the patience. In my own experiment, I shared this CD with a few people in my office. They gave it a spin. One said, “I’ve never heard anything quite like this before—it’s part Gilbert and Sullivan, part rock opera, part Oingo Boingo, part I don’t know what”. For those unfamiliar with the musical excesses and abstractions of the prog rock groups of the 1970s, those grand dramatic collections by the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others, this is strange alien territory.
Yet, to a person, everyone I have played this for has loved it. It is different and grandiose and fresh—a look backwards while running ahead. As Doug Powell gives up caring about fitting into any mold, he lets loose with the kind of talent we always knew was lurking beneath the surface. The diverse music and heavy production of The Lost Chord may throw some people off-track, but who cares? Powell is one of our great natural resources—give him time alone in a studio and he’ll spin angst into fascinating musical fun. The Renaissance Man delivers the goods with this one, and he leaves you wanting more.