when wings become electric: burning the midnight oil with powerdove

Do You Burn

powerdove
Do You Burn?

Annie Lewandowski vocals, prepared piano, keyboard, guitar
John Dieterich guitars, bass
Thomas Bonvalet harmonica reeds, six-string banjo, amps, microphones, feet tapping, hand clapping, tuning forks, concertina, guitar, dry poppy pods, whistlings
Released March 2013
Circle Into Square

As the high-pitched distortions of a concertina pierce the ether in “Fellow,” the opening track of powerdove’s latest, Do You Burn?, it’s clear they belong to a music comprised of supernal layers. Like emotional specimens under a microscope, each instrumental slice has its own cover slide. At the risk of belaboring the analogy, we might say that Annie Lewandowski’s voice is the clarifying stain. The Minnesota-born pianist, songwriter, and improviser began powerdove as a solo highway before assembling her current car pool with John Dieterich of Deerhoof and Thomas Bonvalet of L’ocelle Mare. Their barbed tangle of feedback and acoustic guitar almost obscures the patter of raindrops that follows in Lewandowski’s wake, each a step toward fractured closure. The classical enunciation of the words adds glint to the rough lyrical edges in a love song that is both invitation and self-cocooning:

Fellow
you’re inside
mellow
to my aching body

Thus initiated, thus torn in two, the listener leaves one self behind while the other drips into the soil, where the only accompaniment can be found in the stirrings of worms, chiggers, and other stewards of long-rotted crops. In this fecund quilt lies the one perfect square, its fragrance more powerful than a tornado.

There is a feeling here of three itinerant creators, wandering from one abandoned farmstead to another and playing on whatever battered equipment they can find, thus leaving songs as sigils of their fleeting inhabitation. This doesn’t mean that the proceedings are in any way sparse, for as in “Under Awnings,” despite the minimal appliqué of handclaps and muted piano, there is a mortal weightiness that one can only find in the dreaming body.

One last chance for a kiss
run away to another
under awnings of sheet and steel
I lay me down

So, too, the portal of “California.” It is fiercely emblematic of the album’s deceptive simplicity, for what appears to be nothing more than a drinking song is in fact a veiled paean to knowledge-seeking and the ways in which it is inevitably cracked by, and elided from, the creative process in favor of something new. Such abandonment is also readily apparent in “Flapping Wings,” a scenic morsel to feed the gaping mouth of a landlubber’s heart (indeed, there is something of an oceanic brogue about it).

All the leaves blow off
breeze to take the spring seeds on

The title track pulls harder at the album’s frays of memory as the sun watches keenly, nakedly, holding no judgment but our own.

The quavering bellows provide mechanical respiration in the background, the trembling of a newborn locomotive opening its eyes to the tracks. Unlike the latter, however, powerdove does not submit to the promise of coming together that the horizon throws at us. Rather, it maintains its parallels through a voice’s secrecy that we find in “Alder Tree I,” as well as in “Out On the Water,” which enacts another playful approach to perspective and relays between solo accompaniment and homespun groove and treats size as an ever-changing idea to which ears subscribe at random.

listen hear the refrain
listen now the refrain

“Love Walked In” enacts that part of every journey during which the destination, though still a ways away, nevertheless glistens in the mind as if it were a jewel in the hand. Sprightly guitar layers and an optimistic bass dance their way down endless stretch of road. Rhythms recur with the crunch of granola at molar touch.

We run and laugh and
run under darkened skies

“Red Can of Paint” evokes the microscopic attention of William Carlos Williams. Overturned, it acts as a sounding drum for all activity that shares slivers of its perimeter in this pizzicato postcard.

Light from the hall
wash you over

“All Along the Eaves” is by far the album’s truest to form—not only for the subtlety of its traction but also for its admixture of voice, melody, and text. Through songs like this, powerdove asks us, Why separate the chaff when it is still singing? And in this sense they provide an ethical service, documenting swan songs before they are discarded via the guts of machinery and industry.

On my knees I’m weak
three breaths from my coffin

“Out of the Rain” is a beautiful afternoon-laden choir with a thump following close behind: a peg-legged, Björkian nightscape.

Whisper me my name
your hand resting on my face

Lewandowski has beautiful way of repeating words: drinking, sinking, sung, turning them into compact mantras of poetic evocation.

In “Wandering Jew,” which reads like a travelogue of the voice, that repetition finds in the sensitive instrumental accompaniments a wavering sense of corporeal reality, which seeks shade under the beautiful plucked piano of “Alder Tree II,” a windblown leaf that hangs even though its branch is gone.

I hang my head

Although the album barely surpasses half an hour in duration, it cradles countless more of unraveling in its bosom. There is a sheen to its contours that speaks of the dawn as experience’s signature: not an admission of love but a love of admission.

powerdove
(Photo by Ben Piekut)

An e-mail interview with Annie Lewandowski

> 1. Can you briefly walk me through the evolution of the album from concept(s) to realization?

In June 2010 I moved to Southampton, England to join my husband, Ben, who had work teaching there. I’d left the Bay Area and also left powerdove, which at that time had consisted of me singing and playing guitar, Jason Hoopes on upright bass, and Alex Vittum on percussion. We’d toured some on the west coast and recorded “Be Mine” (released on Circle Into Square Records) earlier that year. In England I had a lot of time (perhaps too much time…) to myself. No work, no friends. I was inspired by the rain, the grey, the solitude, and very much the landscape. 11 of the 13 songs on “Do You Burn?” were written there, walking along the River Itchen, as sparse arrangements for voice and guitar. Ben and I talked at length about how this next recording might sound. Ben suggested I ask Thomas (Bonvalet) and John (Dieterich) to collaborate. Thomas has a fantastic solo project called L’ocelle Mare that I’d been introduced to in 2006 or 2007 when he toured through Oakland (Thomas is from France). He plays a vast array of instruments—foot percussion, handclaps, reeds, banjo, poppy pods…. He has an incredible sense of rhythm and a fantastic sense of atmosphere. John has been a friend for a long time. He’s an amazing guitarist and imagining his dense guitar sound on this record was thrilling. I invited Thomas to come to a concert I played in Paris in April 2011 to see what he thought about collaborating, and John’s known powerdove’s music since the beginning. Both were on board and we met in Albuquerque to record the album in January 2012.

> 2. How did you come to share the road with John and Thomas? What newness (or antiquity, for that matter) do they bring to the powerdove sound?

Think I answered this in my lengthy response to question one…

> 3. Your lyrics seem personal, at times intensely so. Are they a diary? Are they a travelogue? Are they fantasy?

Yes, the lyrics are intensely personal. Sometimes I’ve worried that they are a bit too personal, but then what else would I write? I don’t think I could do it any differently. I’ve worried about the transparency of the lyrics before, but had a really comical experience a few years back that lead me to believe they maybe weren’t so transparent. I had performed the song “Easter Story” in London and someone came up to me afterwards and asked me if I was a Christian. Another person asked me if the song was about Catholic church child sexual abuse. Needless to say, neither got at what the song means to me.

I’d say that, more than anything, these songs are a diary…things I’ve thought, felt, experienced, that have found their best articulation in music.

> 4. Your music strikes a fine balance between polished and rough ore. Is this balance conscious and, if so, does it arise organically?

I love that you have that experience listening to Do You Burn? This balance is very conscious, and it happens very much organically. At a concert we played in Poitiers in March, someone came up to me after the concert and said they felt like I was the lighthouse in the midst of a storm. I love for the simple clarity of the melody and lyrics to root itself in the bed of sonic wildness that Thomas and John create. It’s exhilarating to sing in the middle of it! I’ve been trying to close my eyes less when I sing but have found it to be impossible. I have to concentrate so completely while I’m singing so as not to get thrown off balance.

> 5. For the most part, the songs feel like they were recorded live in the studio with very little multi-tracking. Was this a practical or an aesthetic decision?

It was an aesthetic decision. We wanted the intimacy and feel of live takes so recorded the album as such. There was a relatively small amount of overdubbing done for this record. We recorded live at John’s house—I was singing in a closet, Thomas was playing his banjo (and other instruments) in the bathroom, and John was in the main room playing guitar.

> 6. Speaking of aesthetics, how would you describe powerdove’s in one word?

jagged

> 7. The song “Wandering Jew” is rivetingly poignant. What does it mean to you?

I wrote “Wandering Jew” after Ben and I had packed up everything in our semi-detached house in Southampton. The movers had taken everything and there was literally nothing left in the house. I’d kept my guitar and wrote it in the days just before moving back to the US. There is a lot about the English landscape in that one, there is a lot about the pain and the exhilaration of having left the religion I was brought up with. It’s my favorite song from “Do You Burn?” I can feel my heart bursting with this complex range of emotions every time I sing it. I owe a lot to John and Thomas for magnifying that feeling in their instrumental parts, which are absolutely exquisite.

> 8. Much of the press surrounding your work talks about geography. How important is landscape to you as a songwriter?

I’ve noticed how much geography figures in my songs, but only in hindsight. So much about water…. I grew up in a small town in Northern Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi. Much of my childhood was spent swimming in the lakes and river in the summer and ice-skating and running around on the frozen lakes in the winter. Maybe after all of those years in and on bodies of water it’s what first comes to mind. Or maybe it’s because I get the lyrics for many of my songs when I’m outside walking and that’s often near bodies of water. We just recorded songs for the next powerdove album and geography still has a presence, but less so than in Do You Burn?

> 9. If asked to cite any musical influences on powerdove, who might they be?

For singing, Nico’s at the front. Instrumentally, all of the wonderful improvisers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and playing with the last 15 years. And I grew up in and received a lot of my music education in the Lutheran church. When my songs are at their most basic, just me singing and playing guitar, I find they have a lot in common with the hymns of my youth—stark and simple.

> 10. Poetry or prose?

Poetry.

Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri: Athens Concert (ECM 2205/06)

Athens Concert

Charles Lloyd
Maria Farantouri
Athens Concert

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, flute, tárogató
Maria Farantouri voice
Jason Moran piano
Reuben Rogers double-bass
Eric Harland drums
Socratis Sinopoulos lyra
Takis Farazis piano
Recorded in concert June 2010 at Herod Atticus Odeon, Athens
Recording engineer: Nikos Espialidis
Assistant engineer: Kostas Kyriakidis
Equipment by Logothetis Music
Mixed by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Dorothy Darr

Where are we
that the wind won’t blow?

“The human voice can capture the heart more swiftly and directly than any other instrument,” writes Charles Lloyd in the liner notes for Athens Concert, an historic live event given the permanence it more than deserves through this landmark recording. Lloyd goes on to relate how, as a child growing up in Memphis, he would fall asleep to the sound of Billy Holiday’s voice from the radio under his pillow, and how years later that same magic revealed itself in contralto Maria Farantouri (Greece’s Edith Piaf, if you will), who he later befriended and who introduced him to the songs of Mikis Theodorakis after he’d invited her to sing one of his own. Farantouri’s heart is ancient, and her desire to introduce Lloyd to her culture is manifest in the depth of his playing. She characterizes the tenor master as “a shaman of jazz who dominates the stage with the power of the mystic and the innocence of a child. The sound of his music can have the weight of a stone or the lightness of the air. With his improvisations he weaves an imaginary but so familiar world, a mirage constantly disintegrating and reforming.” We might say, then, that Lloyd is a singer, channeling his breath through a weathered metallic throat and bidding the very stars to dance. The bridging of these two worlds spawns a third, one where voices of time sing like parents to a child.

And what is “Kratissa ti zoi mou” (I Kept Hold of My Life), which opens the program, if not a voice churning in the tide of darkness from which we all are born? George Seferis’s words (from the poem, “Epiphany, 1937”) blossom from an unmistakable tenor branch, smooth yet weighted as if by the buckshot of self-awareness and sliding like honey down an enviable backdrop: Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Curtains part to reveal Farantouri’s husky swirls. Moran elicits sweet noise, mixing Ketil Bjørnstad-like textures with idiosyncratic spectral twists. An emblematic introduction into this forested sound-world, it is the concert’s Rosetta Stone. Lloyd’s classic “Dream Weaver” continues in the same flowing vein, his remarkably sunlit reed gathering enough thread to make even the most sedentary marionette nod in a groovy and somehow freer turn. Harland is also notable here, buoying a rich solo from Moran, who maintains epic contrast between the left and right hands throughout. Lloyd brings a classic edge to the denouement, further picked up by Rogers with intimacy. Our bandleader continues to regale us with his storytelling in “Blow Wind.” The original song finds Farantouri channeling Sheila Jordan, the lyrical star to an instrumental sky. Her voice indeed blows off into the distance, leaving Lloyd to shape those tendrils of dust left in her wake before she returns to stir them anew. Lloyd also pens “Prayer,” which features still more wonders from Moran. Farantouri’s full-throated, wordless song emerges from the bass, reedy like the muse that calls to her. A click away finds Lloyd setting words by politicist Agathi Dimitrouka in “Requiem.” A surprisingly buttery song that finds groove in the tragic, in it Farantouri’s tenderness clears the way for Moran’s more diffuse considerations, as microscopic as pollen and just as fragrant. The music of ECM mainstay Eleni Karaindrou also makes an appearance with “Taxidi sta Kythera” (Voyage to Cythera), which against a low and sultry swing allows gorgeous exchanges between the two bill headers, their voices filling the same crucible with variations of the same alloy.

LM 1

Pianist Takis Farazis joins for the performance’s remainder: the three-part Greek Suite, which he also arranged. Part I is the most ancient, shifting the sands with “Hymnos stin Ayia Triada,” an early Byzantine hymn to the Holy Trinity. Interweaving Lloyd’s flute and Farantouri’s flutedness, its song is its vow. “Epano sto xero homa” (In the Dry Soil) and “Messa Stous paradissious kipous” (In the Pradise Gardens) come from The Sun and Time by Theodorakis and as such unearth the greatest strengths of Farantouri’s gifts. Yet it is only when the strains of the lyra, played by Karaindrou regular Socratis Sinopoulos, touch the sky in Part II that the clouds weep rain. Amid its assortment of traditional tunes, “Thalassaki Mou” (My Little Sea) stands out to me. Although quite different from the version I grew up on the timeless Songs of the Earth by The Pennywhistlers, it nevertheless brings its own enchantment and stirs the musicians to invigorating levels. Part III boasts tunes from the Epirus region. Among the more moving are “Epirotiko Meroloi,” a lament of war and death told from a mother’s point of view, so well evoked by Lloyd’s uncanny intro and by the jangling folkways that ensue, and the intuitive digressions of lovesick souls in “Mori kontoula lemonia” (Little Lemon Tree). Harland grabs his fair share of the spotlight in “Alismono kae haeromae” (I Forget and I Am Glad), as does Sinopoulos in “Tou hel’ to kastron” (The Castle of the Sun), a traditional song from the Black Sea that is the band at its most attuned.

The encore also comes from a mother’s lips, as love pours through “Yanni Mou” (My Yanni) with more permanence than the bravery it mourns. The stichomythia between Farantouri and Lloyd discloses an oceanic world where the rhythms of fins and tails are the only music that remains. And if its mournful cast seems a somber note on which to end, it is only because the invigorations leading up to it linger like a childhood that refuses to let go. Such is the power of this music: it is memory incarnate.

(To hear samples of Athens Concert, click here or watch the video below.)

Robin Williamson: The Iron Stone (ECM 1969)

The Iron Stone

Robin Williamson
The Iron Stone

Robin Williamson vocals, Celtic harp, Mohan vina, Chinese flute, whistles, tabwrdd drum
Mat Maneri viola, Hardanger fiddle
Barre Phillips double-bass
Ale Möller mandola, accordion, clarino, shawm, natural flutes, drone flutes, whistles, jaw harps
Recorded September 2005, Mill House, Abergavenny
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Assistant: Dylan Fowler
Produced by Steve Lake

“Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?”
–William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

From, but not to: this is the direction Robin Williamson travels by. For his third ECM outing, the man who puts the “true” in troubadour rejoins viola player Mat Maneri and fellow multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller, and plays for the first time alongside bassist Barre Phillips in tapping a trove of words by Sirs Walter Raleigh and Thomas Wyatt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Clare, and of course Williamson himself. “The Climber” offers a transportive introduction to this album’s relatively distant considerations, carrying us up through the clouds and into the moist particles of their origins. Improvised around the bard’s words, the music crawls and stretches, working its gnarled trunk around such shadows as “There Is A Music”—an ode to becoming that is played, as he sings, on the harp-haired gods by the fingers of tomorrow—and Emerson’s “Bacchus.” The last is the most heart-wrenching song of the set, a tale of forlorn tendrils and other fermentations caught in a butterfly’s wingspan.

There is an aged quality to the medieval Scots ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” which through the arrangement here concedes to the palettes of coarser skies. It is not by mere virtue of Williamson’s years but fundamentally by perseverance of the tune itself that cuts the strings of time and marks wherever it may land. The fragility of Williamson’s telling gives impenetrable strength to the verses. Despite coming early in the program, this song drips with finality, drinking its vagaries through the scratching of bows and wistful sighs. The jaw harp trembles like the hearts of its characters, their lives tossed about the waves like discarded and shattered casks.

Williamson
(Photo by Jerry Young)

It is a stony and tender grave that harbors the melody of “Even Such Is Time,” which comes from “Lament For His Sister” by Rory Dall Morison—who, Williamson informs us in his liner notes, was one of the last traditional highland harpers—and replaces those words with Raleigh’s unconditional roundness. “Loftus Jones,” with music by Turlough O’Carolan, gets a vocal facelift. At Phillips’s suggestion, the group takes a “floating” approach to its wordless narrative. It calls to a different plane of our psyche, treading with carefully weighted soles on the sands of our adoration. Yet even these delicacies cannot help but dislodge a broken feeling or two from their interment, their bones having given up the ghost long ago for cloudy tragedies.

Also remarkable are this album’s evocations of animal life. A winding flute introduces us to “The Yellow Snake,” a somber tale of use and replenishment in a never-ending cycle of the elements of which the human body is composed and by which that same body does its deeds. “The Praises of the Mountain Hare” unearths a soothsayer’s gift, serrated like the mountain shawm that dances down its eastern slope, while in “The Badger” (Clare) Phillips’s scuttling phrasing mimes its eponym. A haunting instrumental epilogue draws us into “Political Lies,” among the more inescapable melodies of the Williamson songbook. In this tale of rearing recollections and broken realities, the history of mystery falls into its own rhyme and reason. The jangly slide guitar and thin-lipped poetry of the title track highlights a darkened wit about these follicles. “To God In God’s Absence” returns from its solo incarnation in The seed-at-zero in a fuller yet somehow more delicate version. No less intense for its adornments, it is Williamson at his finest. And there is, too, his stunning harp accompaniment to “Wyatt’s Song of Reproach,” a kiss to a visage half lit. “Verses at Ellesmere” is a flower of similar make. A ballad for his wife, Bina, if not also for love of balladry, it touches the ever green-ness of things and marks it with an insignia of most idiosyncratic design. These musings can only end with the open-ended “Henceforth,” which drops as a stone into a reflected sky, plying the reaches of dreams and bringing Williamson’s footprints full circle to the many copses and paths that hatch in his art.

The emphasis on spoken word and freer improvisatory elements on this record may polarize listeners. Nevertheless, let them not be a warning but an invitation. For in the grand scheme of sonic things, the truth of delivery reigns. The diction says it all: I am mortal, that I may sing of immortal things.