Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies

This is an album of nocturnes, and it’s one of the year’s best. Haunting, often hilarious, wickedly lyrical and soaked in alcohol – Kelli Rae Powell is credited with inventing the drinkaby, a combination drinking song and lullaby – it’s only fitting that the only cover song on her new album would have originally been written for Mae West. On that lusciously innuendo-laden number, A Man What Takes His Time, Powell does her best Bessie Smith imitation, although she has many other voices up her sleeve, not all of them here. Powell sings in character: while her style evokes Smith as well as Blossom Dearie, she sounds like she could do pretty much any belter or chanteuse from across the decades – or be just herself. With Powell’s voice and her ukelele over a slinky acoustic groove colored with electric guitar in places, this isn’t your typical uke record: the production puts the instrument front and center with a full, round sound instead of the usual plink-plink.

“Some bridges are just better burning,” emphasizes the caption on the inside of the cd cover, Powell shooting a smoldering look from the corner of her raccoon eye. That’s the crux of one of the album’s best songs, a slow waltz that leaves no doubt that the wounds are still fresh:

Some lessons can’t hurt you

If you leave them unlearned…

Maybe in the end

We’ll grow to be friends

Maybe at my death

I won’t be holding my breath

That intensity comes up even further on Don’t Slow Down, Zachary. Even here, Powell’s characteristic understatement and irrepressible humor are overshadowed by the subtle, diabolical details of a road trip that quickly went straight to hell:

Remember how she touched your hand

Remember solemn passing bands

Of old men smoking Parliaments

Chicago was a challenge

Louisville nearly kills them – but she’s hell-bent on not going home because what’s waiting for her there is even worse.

The rest of the album is a lot funnier, and steamier. Lullaby for Bad Girls goes the anthemic route; The Cowboy Song susses out hot-to-trot guys for the clueless creatures they are. There’s a warm, hypnotic lullaby that segues into the devious barroom seduction scene Old Tom, and then the paradigmatic Drinkaby which is even funnier. Powell is joined by a whistle-stop choir of the Ukuladies and Jo Williamson on the swing-flavored Midnight Sleeper Train, maintaining the woozy after-hours ambience while taking it up a notch, then bringing it back down with the understatedly cynical, Amy Rigby-esque Even Trade. Powell’s an amazing lyricist: like LJ Murphy and Bliss Blood, she’s as adept at the vernacular of earlier eras as she is in her own. A fearless and charismatic performer, her ceiling is awfully high: if she could find some way to take her act on the road, find a Zachary who really won’t slow down to take her gig to gig while she slumbers in the back seat, she could connect with a nationwide audience who recognize her for the star she probably knows  she is. Kelli Rae Powell plays the cd release show for this one on October 30 at the Jalopy.

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September 17, 2009 - Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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