Doug Powell: Day For Night
Genre: Inventive, melodic pop/rock with over-the-top electronic enhancement
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- There is a school of thought that places a distinction on "pop music" as something quite removed from the popular mainstream fare that rides atop the waves of public consciousness at any given time. To the adherents of this school, pop is a highly melodic, painstakingly constructed confection directly descended from The Beatles and all those who followed in their wake. Purveyors of this style usually seek to write pithy riffs and effervescent melodies with choruses or middle sections that attain a musical climax of some sort. These are generally wrapped in guitars that sound clean yet have just the right amount of bite, like the effect of a strong but refreshingly minty taste in one’s mouth. The blueprint for the desired sound is rife with well-established criteria, like writing a Shakesperean sonnet. Musicians who seek after the Holy Grail of pure pop tend to be derivative - by its very nature, the music’s highest goal is to echo the transcendent blast that was first felt from the jangling guitars and winsome melodies of Messrs, Lennon, Harrison and McCartney. Fringe artists like Jellyfish, Emitt Rhodes and Richard X. Heyman excel in various ways at this type of pop songcraft, and have satisfied the sweet tooth of many a cultish, pop-craving fan. Few, however, emerge with a truly original style built on the post-Beatles model. If you look closely, off in the distance, you’ll see a head popping up (no pun intended) above the shoulders of the mass of modestly successful melody makers - it belongs to Doug Powell.
Powell has created a full-blown, Technicolor work of high pop art on his second and most recent CD, Day For Night. Even more impressively, he’s done it virtually single-handedly, in the spirit of his mentor, audio wizard Todd Rundgren. Rundgren’s critically heralded 1972 double album Something/Anything (which spawned the radio staple "Hello, It’s Me") served as a standard for multi-tracked one-man-band records for years to come. Either directly or through Rundgren’s bloodline, at least, Powell absorbed the methods of Beach Boys visionary Brian Wilson as well, mastering the art of arranging and producing mini-symphonies that merge Rubik’s Cube intricacy with Orange Creamsicle simplicity and appeal.
Day For Night fairly fizzes over with a potent mixture of engaging and eclectic songs, burbling sound effects, tasteful musicianship and thought-provoking lyrics that pole-vault over the typical boy-meets-girl variations found in even prime cuts of pure pop. Powell’s messages avoid obvious meanings but frequently smack of spiritual commentary, especially on the disc’s opening trio of tracks. On "Unmeaningless," he literally lifts the listener into the heavens, where whooshing stars and other assorted cosmic tidbits seem to be rushing past, all while extolling the vastness of the universe that whirs beyond our daily grind. "Big Blue Sky," with its muscular chorus and relentless rock rhythm, hints at the secret of faith through its suggestion that we can see who we’re really meant to be by not fixing our eyes on the earth to which we’re bound: "nobody ever learned to fly without leaving the world behind/ only you can see into the Big Blue Sky/ you’ve got vision, just close your eyes." The trilogy concludes with "Silent Kisses," a spaced-out waltz that briefly glimpses an unseen torrent of supernatural affection that he calls "a feast that we barely taste." Powell seemingly makes imaginative and fresh allusions to scriptural concepts, like the dark, vaguely Psalms-derived rocker "Diet Of Worms" and "Too Late Tomorrow," which appears to conceal "today is the day of your salvation" between its lines. On the quasi-Vaudevillian romp "Goodbye Lady Godiva," the singer/multi-instrumentalist presents a unique and refreshingly non-judgemental protest of the crass commercialization of the female body. Equal parts Queen-styled campiness and sincere sentiment, the track cleverly points to Lady Godiva’s nude horseback ride - then a symbol of the God-given natural beauty of the human form - to contrast it with the modern proliferation of exploitative nudity.
The dense, effect-laden production and wildly varied styles on Day For Night might prove challenging for some, but the myriad rewards it offers, both melodic and lyrical, make it a must-hear for anyone in search of gourmet ear candy that nourishes the mind as well.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.