Renaissance man and uber-DIY studio talent Doug Powell continues his foray into the more grandiose and progressive realms of power pop with his latest CD release, Day for Night. Here is another captivating collection of beautiful songs, bristling with intelligence and precision, yet requiring more of the listener’s attention than he or she might usually be used to.
Much like his previous The Lost Chord, this isn’t an easy listen, nor is there any instantly defined “single.” Rather, this music requires several listens to make itself known — the complexities and details, the twists and turns of the accessible melodies underlying each song, the power of the studio offerings. However, for the listener willing to go the distance (say 10-12 spins minimum), the rewards are there — without hesitation, this is perfectionist Powell’s finest hour (or 46 minutes, to be more accurate).
This is music as theater, Powell working his confident sound magic with layers of intricate instrumental, electronic, vocal, and percussion choices, creating expansive soundscapes that fill the channels of your headphones to the brim (mastered by the very talented Rick Altizer). Add to that some oblique, intelligent lyrics that take a pointed view of life on this planet and you’ve got what comprises a very strong collection.
Powell’s fine voice is on constant display here (a very good thing), and used to great effect throughout. Additionally, he is responsible for all the music and sounds here (quite remarkably).
The CD opens with the piano-driven ballad that is “Unmeaningless”. Forget the titular double negative that forces you to think far too much, or the paradoxes set forth in the lyrics; this is a bold proclamation of the contradictions inherent in our universe.
The voice of a much younger Doug Powell (circa 1975, Stillwater, OK) sets the rest of the CD in motion. “Big Blue Sky” is a heavily-layered production, reminiscent of some Adrian Belew composition, yet suffused with hints of Rundgren-esque electronic sounds and studio wizardry, yet oh-so-perfect in its way. Powell gets to show off his guitar skills (a tasty lead that follows the well-crafted middle bridge, and more toward the song’s end), and the whole thing becomes a finely honed epic that tops the five-minute mark. It’s Powell’s attack on the money-fueled media and hype machine that misguides many. He reminds us of the sacrifices involved (“Nobody ever learned to fly / Without leaving the world behind”) and how it leeches away one’s life (“I don’t care about averages / They don’t mean a thing to me / There’s no fruit in the orchard / Of fame and fortune / It’s all media-ocrity”).
“Silent Kisses” is a sweet harmonic paean to the equal opportunity gift of rain, touching all and everything small and grand grows as a result. There are hints of Brian Wilson toward the latter part of the song. A brief music-hall organ interlude follows, a light entertainment clearing the palette for the grand work that follows.
That grandiose work is the epic “Stanislaw Smith”. Smith is the existential man, caught in the routines of a normal life “so certainly uncertain / He doesn’t know where to stop / Or where to begin”. Here Powell’s music exhibits an ELO-like grandeur, with soaring harmonies that lift the song higher, while a creepy demon-voiced monologue depicts Stanislaw as “an ill-made man in this hail of days”. This song is a major achievement, intricately crafted and flawlessly executed.
More toward the power-pop norm is the guitar-driven “Invincible”, a declaration of hardened resistant attitude in the face of a violent fear-infested world: “Suns rise just to mock me / Night falls but I won’t kneel / The world and its clocks / They twist and they turn / But I am standing still”. Again, Powell masters the form with seeming ease.
“Beautiful” builds slowly out of spare chords and dissonance, almost like some Fripp or Eno piece (yet with tonal shades from the Who’s “Tommy” as well). While the cacophony might test the listener at times, the spare beauty of the song reflects the lyrical intentions: homage to a beauty who is broken and frayed, a “turn without a wheel” and “a masterpiece never made”. Ultimately, she’s deemed beautiful regardless, proclaimed so by his eyes and words. One might say the same of the song itself.
“Shine” should appeal to Jellyfish fans (though there are plenty of Beatles and other references contained here as well). From a “Benny and the Jets”-type opening, Powell takes Queen-like harmonies and an XTC-like penchant for using lyrical twists and turns in a percussive manner, and turns it into yet another excellently grand musical production.
Lyrically, it’s all about the difficulty of “being here now” or “shining”, doing in life rather than worrying or wondering why. Powell wants that release from the details and worries, the way we hold ourselves back inadvertently: “the only fear other than death / That I have is life / My life”.
The challengingly eclectic “Diet of Worms” has an international flavor to its musical drama. Guitars are used in a percussive way (very Tom Waits), forming the background to vocals and other instrumentation, as a bleak picture is conveyed: “So I pray for warmth without the fire / And I believe anything, as long as it’s a lie / Just an opium for the messes / Alone, alone”. While again, no easy listen, this is an impressive feat of a song.
Doug Powell updates the role of music hall entertainer with his infectious “Goodbye Lady Godiva”. Starting with mere piano accompaniment, he tells the tale of one whose sexual abandon has become rather ho-hum in this modern world. This blossoms into a chorus that marries harmonies with “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” basslines, maintaining the wry delivery of a stage performer entertaining his audience.
Powell is at his lyrical best here: “She used to cast a shadow shaped like hope and paradise / Now she’s bottled and she’s branded and she’s simply merchandise”. In this jaded world, saint turned sinner isn’t very noteworthy: “If you look closely at her mixture / You’ll see no active ingredient / So please pay her some attention / Can’t you see that it’s her only fee / Please realize that without your eyes / There would be nothing to see”.
The CD closes with the charming yet eerie “Too Late Tomorrow”. Here Powell ventures into another dramatic arrangement (I’m even thinking of Kate Bush somehow), the backing beat almost the tick of a clock, synth strings and bells and reverse clips adding atmosphere to this plea for change now in a life where tomorrow would be far too late.
Fittingly, there is another clip from 1975 Doug Powell that wraps things here.
In a world full of many musically talented types, Powell still manages to stand head and shoulders above the fray. His progressive influences and grand intricate musical dramas may run counter to the commercial trends of the moment, but there is no denying his enormous talents and achievements. Day for Night is the pinnacle thus far in a musical career that seems to rise with each musical challenge he sets for himself.
Much as the film Day for Night was a tribute to Trauffaut’s film-making abilities (and the process itself), Doug Powell’s Day for Night is a dazzling tribute to his absolute mastery of the studio and his ability to produce impressive and eloquent music for our troubled age. Remember to give it sufficient listens to reveal its many charms and you can’t go wrong.