FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Step Right Up: Powerdove

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This March sees Portland-based label Circle Into Square release ‘Do You Burn?’, the second full-length album by Powerdove. Across its thirteen tracks (clocking in at just over half an hour) Powerdove create wonderfully eclectic, charming and breathtaking folk music. An album that defies any straight forward categorization, ‘Do You Burn?’ is an unforgettable listening experience.

Words & Illustration: Craig Carry

powerdove_craigcarry

Powerdove is principally Annie Lewandowski, an American singer and songwriter hailing from Minnesota. Lewandowski has recorded with a host of varied artists over the years including: Doublends Vert (Cistern, 2006; s/t, 2005), Caroline Kraabel (In the Garden City, 2009), Fred Frith (Long as in Short, Walk as in Run; 2011), and the London Improviser’s Orchestra (Improvisations for George Riste, 2008). She has also performed with the likes of  Sylvia Hallett and Theresa Wong. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Lewandowski is also a member of the Cornell Avant-Garde Ensemble (CAGE), and is collaborating with percussionist Tim Feeney on soundtracks to the short films of artist Michael Ashkin, and is a lecturer in music at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. ‘Do You Burn?’ sees Lewandowski joined by Deerhoof’s John Dietrich (who also recorded the album) and Frenchman Thomas Bonvalet (L’ocelle Mare). Powerdove’s origins can be traced back to California in 2007 when Lewandowski self-released her debut solo E.P. ‘Live from the Maybeck House’. Afterwards, Powerdove would evolve into a trio (alongside Alex Vittum on percussion and Jason Hoopes on bass) and record the album ‘Be Mine’ in 2009, released by Portland Oregon’s Circle Into Square label in 2010. Whereas the American environs of California and Minnesota would inform Powerdove’s first records, the songs that would make up ‘Do You Burn?’ were written while Lewandowski was in Hampshire, England. Interestingly, the songwriter (who drew much inspiration from the myriad number of lakes in her Minnesota homeplace) would again be drawn to the subject of waters in her new environs, this time in the form of the River Itchen. After a period of writing for a year “down by the sea”, Lewandowski would conclude songwriting matters in upstate New York before enlisting John Dietrich and Thomas Bonvalet for assistance with the recording sessions.

The trio of Lewandowski, Dietrich and Bonvalet would work fast and often work in an improvisational manner. On listening to the album, this sense of energy and vitality can be felt immediately from the outset; offsetting Lewandowski’s carefully honed poetry perfectly. The album is bare and raw (echoing the painfully intimate recordings of Daniel Johnston), wonderfully unpredictable and shrouded in mystery from beginning to end. From the electric guitar distorted feedback and creaking sounds that open ‘Fellow’ we can immediately catch a glimpse of Powerdove’s aesthetics; the focus is very much on creating a feeling and a sense of intimacy. The creaks aren’t going to be covered over, they are going to be fully embraced. When Lewandowski’s vocals come in for the first time, a breath must be drawn such is the impact. Her vocals are reminiscent of Chan Marshall and ‘Moon Pix’ era Cat Power (think ‘Colors and the Kids’ or ‘American Flag’). The song also recalls Nico’s vocal delivery where every syllable is pronounced and is left to linger in the air; ‘How long is the night / How long is one night’ sings Lewandowski, while subtle slide guitar (like Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris Texas’) accentuate the vocals beautifully.

‘Under Awnings’ is my current favourite, an irresistible song which has a near childlike quality. Its primitive opening features a thumping piano alongside a series of handclaps – beginning in a hushed manner, each time getting louder. The piano playing echoes German composer Hauschka’s Volker Bertelmann in style. Although only a little over two minutes in duration, the song’s lyrics imbue a huge sense of feeling and mystery and leaves the listener hang onto Lewandowski’s every word: “Things we’ve lost to memory / could not be here”. The album’s title track features the same theme of memory: “Memory spills in our breath / Fantasies that don’t fade / Hear them leave, see no trace”. This time the vocals are sung over a pulsing violin (like Arthur Russell) while a harmonica adds a hint of light to the brooding atmosphere. Indeed one of the album’s most special moments is when Lewandowski’s refrain enters (prior to this she sings ‘Listen, hear the refrain / Listen, now the refrain”).

Although merely interludes in duration, both ‘Alder Tree I’ and ‘Alder Tree II’ (the album closer) are beautifully constructed ambient pieces (the latter’s outro  featuring the unforgettable lyrics: ‘Under the alder tree / I hang my head / I hang my head’), again heightening the mysterious mood of ‘Do You Burn?’ Elsewhere, ‘Red Can of Paint’ is a classic. Again, the song features a sparse arrangement – this time a pluck of a banjo and bass form regular repetitions in the backdrop, enriching Lewandowski’s otherworldly vocals. “All that you are” is sung repeatedly on the song’s outro recalling the glacial cool vocals – and indeed arrangements – found on Laura Veirs’s classic 2004 Bella Union album ‘Carbon Glacier’. Interestingly, another comparison that comes to mind (particularly in terms of short sparse songs backed by thought-provoking lyrics) is Jana Hunter’s wonderful ‘There’s No Home’ album from 2007.

‘Out of the Rain’ is a glorious song about a couple in love (‘Whisper me my name / Your hand resting on my face / Find a way / I want to stay here with you’); the sparsity of the arrangement only serves to highlight the magic of the ethereal vocals – the song could fit snugly onto Julianna Barwick’s ‘The Magic Place’. ‘I love you too often’, Lewandowski sings on the short folk song ‘All Along The Eves’, a delicate ballad sung from the heart – it’s the kind of song that sounds so timeless it feels as if it doesn’t belong to any particular period or time.

‘Do You Burn?’ sees Annie Lewandowski at her brilliant best, crafting an album of such understated beauty its mysterious spell will linger for a long, long time to come.

————

‘Do You Burn?’ by Powerdove is out on March 19 on Circle Into Square.

http://www.annielewandowski.com
http://powerdove.bandcamp.com
http://www.circleintosquare.com

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