[29 November 2006]
Doug Powell is either an annoying mockingbird or an amazing chameleon, depending upon how you feel about his music. His latest CD, Four Seasons , is certifiable classic pop-rock. But as with Barry Bonds’ questionable home run records, one is sometimes tempted to attach an asterisk next to Powell’s accomplishments. He is a Zelig who both imitates and becomes the music he performs, without revealing the man behind the masks.
This project is divided into four parts, hence its Four Seasons title. Or for you Freudians, it touches upon a subset of Powell’s many musical personalities. The first six songs, from front bumper to back trunk, are the best tracks the Cars never recorded. His original demos are subtitled Car Tunes. In 2004—before Todd Rundgren’s bigger name took the wheel of the New Cars—original guitarist Elliot Easton invited Powell to join the Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr-less Cars. And it is a shame he never test drove these showroom-ready tunes with Easton and original keyboardist Greg Hawkes. Powell’s singing is warmer than either Orr or Ocasek’s, a big plus. Then again, finding warmth in the Cars’ music was like locating a steaming hot cup of coffee in the freezer. Powell’s “One Good Reason”, however, expresses the Cars’ peculiarly Icelandic, chilly longing, whereas “Runaround” and “Lies” snottily complain about romantic infidelity. “Chained” sports one of those complicated Easton guitar solos we all grew to love, and Powell’s old school synthesizer lines are also a consistent pleasure throughout. Intentional chilliness makes this opening salvo Powell’s fall season.
Next up is Venus DeMilo’s Arms, formerly an EP Powell released in Japan during the fall of 2001, yet originally recorded in 1996. These songs more closely match the Paisley Pop record label name. During this song quartet, Powell trades his choppy new wave chops for languid, spacey, psychedelic rock. “Do You Know Mary?” would have made a groovy Mamas & the Papas single, for instance, while the mood changes from Summer of Love laziness to greasy garage rock for “Bye Bye Magpie”. Powell sings it angrily, like a man who won’t be anyone’s stepping stone. “But I’m Only Dreaming” features a leisurely guitar solo, the same kind Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—by way of George Harrison—are known for. With all its sunshine, this has to be Powell’s summer side.
Segment three is a two-song pairing subtitled Dolce Vita. These recordings date back to 2004 and never made it onto any proper album. “The Same Divide”‘s classical piano and air of formality help explain why it has remained homeless up to now. Not that it is a bad song; it is just out of character from much of Powell’s other recorded output. The wittily named “Mary Annette”—pronounced marionette—is a woozy, circus-like tune. Spring training is baseball’s most optimistic time and a period where nobody has been mathematically eliminated – at least not yet. Powell’s songs for part three mirror this anything-is-possible-ism. This, then, is his spring fling.
“God Bless Us All” was intended for Ringo Starr’s I Wanna Be Santa Claus Christmas release. Who can guess why this gem was left off it, while room was made for warhorses like “Winter Wonderland” and “The Little Drummer Boy”. Goose bump inducing glockenspiel, plus a Charles Dickens inspired title, are factors making it just too good to ignore. The recording’s easygoing, unchallenging vocal line is also perfectly suited for Starr in his happy-go-lucky “Yellow Submarine” mode. Call this last one Powell’s winter wonderland.
You may be tempted to dismiss an odds ‘n’ sods collection like Four Seasons. After all, if these are not-ready-for-primetime outcasts, instead of conceptual puzzle pieces, maybe they are not worthy of your ears now. Granted, this work does not add up to an interrelated masterpiece. Few albums live up to such high praise, anyhow. It does, however, show off Powell’s wide ranging studio skills—even without a consistent weather pattern, if you will. Doug Powell, the amazing chameleon, gives reason to be jolly in every season.