The Upshot: Ten remarkable, and timely, tunes that chart the gifted singer-songwriter’s personal history while applying universal truths to the world we currently live in.
BY FRED MILLS
In a stroke of serendipity, the arrival a few weeks ago of the latest album from singer-songwriter Lisa Mednick Powell very nearly coincided with an interview I did in early March with some college journalism students. (The record was officially released this past November.) Their topic was songs about North and South Carolina, and they tapped me for my knowledge of contemporary musicians (a couple of professors had been their sources for pre-British Invasion artists); had I heard Blue Book prior to the interview, I surely would have included Powell’s haunting “Smoke Over Carolina,” the album’s opening track and the third in what she calls her Civil War trilogy, although it was specifically inspired by a news story she heard about a deadly fire at a chicken processing factory in which the workers were trapped inside. “I’m leaving today,” her protagonist sings, “there’s fire in the trees, and smoke over Carolina,” With harmony vocals from Powell’s husband Kip and Victoria Williams (the tune was recorded in Joshua Tree, where Williams lives), and against a backdrop of bass, drums, spectral organ, and Greg Leisz’ guitar and mandolin, Powell beautifully evokes that not-yet-forgotten era, deftly echoing an earlier song about the South, The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
It’s a rich, contemplative album, from the gentle country-folk of “Pieces of Your Soul” (observes Powell, “Some things we carry/ Some things we must let go,” uttering a simple-yet-sage truism too many people fail to heed) and the honky-tonk-tinged “To the Wilderness” (which was produced by hard-twanging guitarist Tommy Malone in New Orleans), to the eerie, Tom Waitsish sonic collage of “Crow,” to the show-stopping anthem that is “Give the Guns to the Girls,” which unfolds in suite-like fashion, part rock, part Americana, part cabaret jazz, and wholly political. It may have been inspired by the Boko Haram abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls, but considering the current climate in the United States, it’s as timely a song as you’ll likely encounter right now.
Blue Book is Powell’s third album, and considering it’s been nearly 16 years since her previous album, 2002’s acclaimed Semaphore, the obvious question becomes, why the delay? Part of the reason is that she was busy getting a Master’s degree, but really, the answer resides in these ten remarkable tunes: She was taking the time to live her life, learn its many lessons, and turn those experiences into songwriting gold.
DOWNLOAD: “Give the Guns to the Girls,” “Smoke Over Carolina,” “Highway Prayer”