Lisa Mednick Powell – Blue Book
10 songs – 43:00
Pianist and songwriter Lisa Mednick Powell began her study of classical piano at the age of seven, continuing her studies until dropping out of college, moving from Ann Arbor, MI, to Washington, D.C., and eventually to New York City. While there, she played in a couple of pop bands before deciding to enroll at the Howard University Music Conservatory in Washington, D.C., to study jazz piano. In 1984, she moved to New Orleans to study saxophone with Charles Neville. Over the ensuing years, she backed numerous performers, both in the studio and on the road, including Earl King, Alejandro Escovedo, The Chills, and Michelle Shocked. She recorded her first solo album – Artifacts of Love – in 1994, followed by Semaphore, in 2002.
Blue Book is Mednick Powell’s third album, and it took nearly 16 years since her previous album to produce it, with the intervening years providing her with both a Master’s Degree and a whole lot of life experience and perspective. The album was produced by Mednick Powell with assistance from Chris Unck, Tommy Malone and Gar Robertson. Her husband and musical partner Kip Powell played bass, and other contributors include Tommy Malone, Gar Robertson and Joel Kastner on guitars, lap steel and mandolin, Paul Santopedro on drums, and Tom Soden on trumpet. Gabriella Evaro, Tommy Malone, Alison Young, and Sophie Kastner provided backing vocals, with additional vocals and instrumentation from Victoria Williams, Greg Leisz and Danny Frankel.
Blue Book is a rich, contemplative album, the tone clearly established with the plaintive dobro-and-mandolin underpinnings of the opening track, “Smoke Over Carolina.” Its lyrics tackle everything from the U.S. Civil War, to workers’ rights, to inequality, to the ongoing assault on organized labor in America, and can only be viewed as a screed against the current global political climate, in which corporate interests and oligarchs are greedily clawing-back power from individuals.
“Cold Coffee” is a New Orleans-tinged ballad that is a reminiscence of times gone by: “Now my soul’s just like cold coffee… slipped right through your heart, nobody caught me… but we sang and we danced for every dollar… and the years ran by like muddy water.”
“I Am Not Gold” feels like an incredibly personal song: “I am not gold… I’m only silver… and I shine with a cold blue light… do not hold me… to what I can’t deliver… it’s a hard-won prize… it ain’t worth the fight.”
“To the Wilderness” is a twangy, country honk that calls to mind early Jackson Browne, as sung by, say, the McGarrigle sisters or Lucinda Williams.
Inspired by such events as the 2014 kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the 2015 Stanford rapist, Brock Turner, “Give the Guns to the Girls” is one of the album’s standout tracks, and continues the theme of disillusionment and resulting activism that underscores the #resist movement both here in the U.S. and abroad. “Give the guns to the girls… quit talking to me about peace in this world… let the girls have the guns… let them hunt down the hunter till he has nowhere to run.“ Angry, powerful stuff.
The ethereal dissonance of “Crow” calls to mind some of Tom Wait’s later work, with layers of non-traditional instrumentation that could have easily been orchestrated by John Cage.
The album closes out with “Highway Prayer,” a New Orleans-infused take on the soul and gospel ballads of the late 60s. A reworking of something Mednick Powell had recorded back in in the mid-80s, this update has a confident, more upbeat quality that complements some of the darker pieces in this collection.
This dark, swirling gumbo of Americana is most definitely a singer-songwriter’s album. I find many of these songs to be evocative of The Band’s best music, and I can easily imagine them being sung by the late Richard Manuel. Like Manuel, Mednick-Powell’s voice has a delicate, almost mournful quality, and the musical performances here are well-matched, with solid arrangements, tasteful instrumentation, and personal, insightful lyrics. It might not be traditional blues by a long shot, but it’s definitely worth a listen… or three.