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Doug Powell - Four Seasons Print E-mail
Monday, 01 January 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    The Paisley Pop Label
reviewed by:    Dan MacIntosh

ImageDoug Powell is either an annoying mockingbird or an amazing chameleon, depending upon how his work strikes you, and his latest release vacillates between the two. But no matter how you come out on the Powell question, it is nearly impossible to label the man an original. He is a Zelig who both imitates and becomes the music he plays, while rarely revealing the man behind the masks.

Originality is sometimes overrated. This is not to underrate the thrill of discovering beautiful oddballs like Beck, but let’s just say that uniqueness may not always be what you primarily look for in new music. Sometimes I just want to recreate the buzz I first got from rock and roll at 16. I may not jump on my bed doing Pete Townshend windmills anymore, but I still yearn to feel that initial adrenaline rush. Almost by definition, rock music is visceral.

I won’t side with the Powell’s-a-mockingbird contingent. He’s a chameleon and a damn good one, and I’m always delighted to watch him change colors. He’s my E-ticket to rock and roll nostalgia, and I’m not ashamed to time travel right along with him.

Powell’s new project is divided into four parts, hence its Four Seasons title. (Or for Freudians, it reflects Powell’s multiple musical personalities.)
Part one, encompassing tracks one through six, are from front bumper to trunk the best songs the Cars never recorded. These demos are subtitled Car Tunes. In 2004 -- before Todd Rundgren’s bigger name carjacked the New Cars -- original guitarist Elliot Easton invited Powell to join the newly Ric Ocasek- and Benjamin Orr-less Cars. It’s a shame he never test-drove these showroom-ready tunes with Easton and original keyboardist Greg Hawkes along, because Powell’s singing is warmer than either Orr’s or Ocasek’s. Then again, finding any warmth in the original Cars music was like stumbling upon a steaming cup of coffee inside the freezer. Powell’s “One Good Reason” shivers with the Cars’ peculiar Iceland-ish longing. “Runaround” and “Lies” snottily complain about romantic infidelity, as only the woebegone Cars could, while “Chained” sports one of those complicated Easton guitar solos we all grew to love. Throughout, Powell’s old school synthesizer lines are a consistent pleasure.

Next up is Venus DeMilo’s Arms, an EP Powell released in Japan during the fall of 2001, yet recorded back in ‘96. These songs more closely mirror the Paisley Pop record label name. For this brief song quartet, Powell trades choppy new wave energy bursts for languid, spacey, psychedelic rock. “Do You Know Mary?” would have made a groovy Mamas & the Papas single. Next, the mood modulates from Summer of Love languor to the greasy garage atmosphere of “Bye Bye Magpie.” Powell sings it angrily, like a man who won’t be anybody’s stepping stone. “But I’m Only Dreaming” features a leisurely guitar solo -- the same kind Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, by way of George Harrison, are known for.

The third segment in this CD quartet of shrinking seasons 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,” with its classical piano part and air of formality, helps explain why it has remained homeless up to now. It is not bad, mind you. It’s just out of character from much of Powell’s mostly power-pop catalogue. The wittily named “Mary Annette,” an oompah-ing, circus-like romp, is this song chapter’s standout entry.

“God Bless Us All,” the disc’s benediction, was intended for Ringo Starr’s I Wanna Be Santa Claus Christmas release. Who can guess why this gem was left out, while Starr made room for warhorses like “Winter Wonderland” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Goosebump-inducing glockenspiel, plus a Charles Dickens-inspired title, ought to have been enough to make it too good to ignore. Its easygoing, unchallenging vocal line is also perfectly suited for Mr. Starr in his happy-go-lucky, “Yellow Submarine” mode. Ringo, why did you Grinch it?

It is tempting to dismiss an odds ‘n sods collection like Four Seasons. After all, when gathered all together as one, this set looks a little like the Island of Misfit Toys in that old Rudolph holiday cartoon. But if you take the time to get to know this grouping of mix and match treasures, you might just grow to love them. Please give this chameleon a little karma.

It should suffice to remind listeners that this is a disc of demos and recorded leftovers. If you lower your expectations and raise your imagination, you can picture what Powell might well have done with this raw material. But even in the demo stage, Powell’s Car Tunes are shimmering prizes. What he lacked in recording budget, he more than made up for with his encyclopedic understanding of what the Cars were all about. He should be praised for choosing to shake it up a little.

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