ROGER POWELL, EATIN’ AN APPLE, SITTIN’ ON BLUE NOTE RIDGE
Blue Note Ridge is Roger Powell’s fourth solo album. The largest difference between this album and the three preceding ones is that these previous albums were significantly synthesizer-based. As his former band–mate, Todd Rundgren used to say, “you were born, to synthesize”, and this new CD on Fossil Poets Records is largely based on piano. Plain old acoustic piano with maybe a synth note here and there.
The new millennium has been the most prolific period for Powell, putting out two albums within two years of each other. But we will start at the beginning to avoid confusion. Why should you read? Sometimes it is fun to look inside the private lives of corporate executives. You see, one-time Rundgren side man Powell has perhaps one of the most lucrative day jobs in post-modern computer society today. He currently works for Apple Computer as a senior programmer and technical lead for audio within Apple Pro Applications. (Don’t quote me, I got that from WikiWikiScratchPedia!)
But Powell first gained notoriety as sort of a traveling pitch-person for ARP synthesizers. He was an obvious choice as he is a classically trained pianist as well as having a thorough understanding of the electronics half of the instrument. So in that sense, he was a double threat. That stood him well as a protege of Robert Moog. That was also the element that drew Rundgren towards Powell to fill the shoes of his recently housecleaned keyboard section (Utopia had three keyboardists at the time, Ralph Shuckett, Moogy Klingman, and Jean-Yves LaBat).
His most dubious honor is perhaps the fact that he was instrumental in creating the “keytar”, that awful portable keyboard that, when Powell showcased the Powell Probe, it wasn’t so bad. He played it with machismo. But as the big-haired, dance-move oriented bands like Gloria CRASH Estefan and the Miami Vomit Machine came into vogue, there were copies all over the place, most notably the Roland version. Powell’s was the first, and a self-creation. But that’s not all we have to thank Roger Powell for. He was also the first to create and program a midi-sequencing program for the Apple II. The program was called Texture and gave the music a certain sheen, a sleekness if you will. This gave way to the perfected musical performances we hear today. Fewer musicians to pay, perfect parts every time.
We can hear evidence of his midi programming technique on Fossil Poets, the album from 2006, his third. In fact, with regard to his discography we can get that out of the way right now:
1973; Cosmic Furnace - Atlantic
1980: Air Pocket – Bearsville Warners
2006: Fossil Poets – Inner Knot
2008: Blue Note Ridge – Fossil Poets Records
So with this timeline in mind, it is safe to say that from 1973 to 2006 Roger Powell has been heavily involved with synthesized music. So why the change now? The promotions for this limited edition CD say it is his solo debut piano album. For what ever reason, it is fresh, and perhaps it was liberating for Powell to be able to just focus on the music and not have to worry about the sound coming out of the instrument. It will sound like a piano, just play…
There are fourteen tracks on this disc, and each and every one of these tracks had been improvised from beginning to final slate.
“Path To The River” stark chords, unhurried rhythm, a bit of breakup on the right rear channel of my 7.1 system, perhaps mastered too high especially in the higher ranges. Some cascading notes break up the chordal rhythm.
The moods Powell will induce will be stark and fleeting as the pieces are not very long. No room for self-indulgence. What does Powell find on the “Path To The River”? It must be one crazed path because this composition is all over the place in the best possible ways. When things got too rocky, some alternating, descending notes bring us round to similar stark chords at the end of the piece.
There may be a hint of synth in the first notes of this one, but “Blue In Grey” bobs and weaves it’s way through ascentions, descentions, alternate root notes, and more! These pieces hold nothing back. We get a glimpse of Powell’s key acrobatics on this track as he allows some of his speed to show in some of his runs. The moods again switch on and off (the retro-hipsters call this “being digital”). The mic sensitivity is good you can hear Powell’s feet on the piano pedals. Crisp! Even what you think is a mistake, Powell turns into a mood!
And Todd Rundgren used to win Playboy magazine’s Best Keyboardist awards…
A series of quick arpeggiations end this think-piece.
Happy, peppy and busting with majors, “Blue Note Ridge” stays happy for a while. Notes begin to wander, but things still move along as they wander. It’s a piece like this that remind me that this music is not for the toe-tapping type, better let you know now. This ain’t Ferrante and Tischer… You 4/4 lovers looking for hooks and catchy melodies STAY AWAY!!! Powell torments and delights the keys in every piece. For all you happy ending lovers, “Blue Note Ridge” does not end as happily as it began.
“Take To The Sky”, and not the Tori Amos song, but Powell’s own interpretation of flight. From the sounds of some of these chords, if he’s talking about commercial air travel, then this sounds like he’s had one too many flights on the Screamin’ Baby Express (thanks Dave)!
Almost Ragtime at times, dissonant at others, it is the tonal opposite of coach to private.
I also had a bit of an “experience” with my CD player on this track, (I did not load it into iTunes for fear of improv coma), it took my machine a while to read the intro to track four when track searching. Hopefully this is an issue with my player arising and not the disc pressing.
There are some bluesy passages in Powell’s flight. I know I keep referring to these songs as pieces, it serves as a better description. There are no verses, choruses, etc. to speak of. If there are, they are too dissimilar to easily spot.
“Snowfall” is as close to Vince Guaraldi as this is gonna get. But it won’t get that close, Powell is too big a fan of dissonance.
A strange snare drum effect sounds through most of “Green Shift”. That is as if s snare drum were left unattended in the room with the piano. Afficianados will know that if a snare drum is close to any sort of sound source, the snares will rattle against the bottom head. Snares are a series of coiled wires held across the bottom drumhead that vibrate with the strike against the upper head that give the snare drum that additional crack.
Powell’s chords and speedy riffs take us to an introspective place as sometimes spooky effects come from the piano. Long time Powell fans will recognize some of his signature progressions in this and most of these pieces. Utopia fans got an inkling at the very end of the little distributed B-side of their first (and only) top 40 hit “Set Me Free”, from Adventures In Utopia. Not on the album but the single’s B-side “Umbrella Man” ended with Powell going off on an acoustic piano. That little snippet is a precursor for this entire album. Warm chords at about 3:45 turn the tide for this to start its winsome and hopeful end.
Steady chords and sure notes bring in “Flint Hill”. One word comes to mind during this piece: Aspiration. The minor diminished chords don’t come in until about 1:30. At this point we rejoin to build the mood back up with more A-tonal chords at about 2:00 and with some happy-go-lucky notes, we end.
If all this dissonance keeps up, however will we find “Peace And Quiet”? We will find it unhurried, with chord strikes on the beat, and a minimalist melody interwoven in between these chords. At times Powell reminds me of Brian Eno and some of his more Ambient music, but with less repetition. This piece moves, evolves, breathes, feels and then feels differently.
Effects or synths intro this suspenseful piece, “Ghost Ripples”. As you get into the short track, effects and pre-delay are the keywords. My biggest complaint about this track is it’s too short. I want more. By the time you dig it, it’s over. Rats!
No self-indulgence here.
A rather somber “Shadow Of Pines” in that the tempo is that of a funeral march. A-tonal breaks interspersed between funeral marches break up this procession of the dead. But then we are greeted by more regal sounding chords. Must be representing the pine’s majesty. From the last big chords, Powell must be enjoying living in the North West.
A delicate and explorative “Valley Fog” wafts into our ears. Nay-sayers of this music would say it all sounds the same. True, this is music for those who have a more refined musical taste. This composition especially could hold a candle to many played at Carnegie Hall.
The intro chords to “First Light” are simply beautiful, and with some minor revision by someone else (maybe someone with a pop mind, oh, say, Todd Rundgren…) could convert most of this rather upbeat tune (in comparison to the rest of the disc) into a pop song. Hey, throw in some of Kasim Sulton’s pop sensibilities in there and you get yourself a Utopia tune, especially that ending!
“Still Point” starts off with a note riff, and its chordal structure is a tad easier to follow as opposed to the other pieces here, but watch out, by the time you get the hang of it, it’s done quickly again.
We end this evening’s introspection with “Watershed”. Another meandering piece, as all of these tend to be. But Powell makes the ride so enjoyable, even through we are riding in the musical equivalent to a Model A. During the second “verse” part we are treated to some interplay and filigree. Reminiscent of some things from Rundgren’s ‘Treatise On Cosmic Fire’. After some intense speedy tickling of the higher ivories, we are through with Blue Note Ridge.
My two biggest complaints would be the break up of some of the audio, and the overall length. Someone’s been talking to former Bowie band-mate Adrian Belew about releasing short CDs… I mean unless you have this on a playlist, shuffle or multiple CD player, it can’t be used for one of its ultimate designs, sex music! This CD would set an intensely romantic mood were it longer than its 36 minutes, 15 seconds. You may have to back it with some Ambient Eno to get the job done.
What are the positives for buying this CD? Besides being good for sex music, these pieces are played masterfully, and right on the CD it says Limited Edition, money in the bank. Besides, these pieces may just cause you to think…
…but we wouldn’t want that.