In 2014, Mike Powell was nominated for a Syracuse music award (a SAMMY) for his album Kapow in the “Best Other Style” category. An interesting description, making it tough to describe what he does musically. But upon listening to his upcoming EP Shelter Without Walls, that “other style” description starts to make more sense. Powell incorporates range of influences from folk and classic country to create a unique singer-songwriter sound. His lyrics are vulnerable and laden with vivid imagery like a Johnny Cash song, while subtly raspy vocals give his John Prine-eque melodic singing a more modern flavor. All-in-all, Powell is a product of both his predecessors and his world view. He is able to weave lyrically thought-provoking narratives and set these on top of either a pulsating acoustic guitar or a fleshed-out instrumental.
One of the most interesting things about this EP is how furtively diverse the instrumentals are in the songs that do contain more voices. The fifth track, “Sad Day in Champion” has one of these larger setups and offers a nice full mix. A twangy guitar solo sits behind the mix, giving it a distant feeling. This matches well with the actual lyrical content of the song, which deals a lot with distance and feeling far away. Powell is able to do this type of emotive mirroring with the instruments throughout the album, though in a less distinct way, as is the nature of the more stripped-down production. As is characteristic of the general scope of the genres Powell accesses, these productions are all organic.
There’s no overbearing instruments, and the vocals are given room to convey Powell’s musings. A few interspersed songs feature just Powell singing and strumming the acoustic guitar, giving the EP a nice dynamic flow, and a sense of the ups and downs. In “Backseat Bingo”, he showcases his ability to reach higher in his vocal range while still maintaining the Guthrie style of storytelling. In these solo singer-songwriter songs, a more classically mixed acoustic guitar complements Powell’s voice which has a big reverb wash, adding depth. Powell does well setting the mood of the album in this regard. The ups are never too high, and the downs are typically very low, and every song offers a look at a different aspect of Powell’s songwriting style.
Some of the topics touched upon are historical but maintain their modern bitterness. There’s enough hope in the lyricism to keep the experience from being overly heavy. Namely, in his song “Twenty One Rounds”, Powell takes on the perspective of a mother who’s lost a son in battle. The song is dense and somber throughout, until the end when he writes in an uplifting commentary from the perspective of the son talking to the grieving mother. The EP finisher, “Poison Diamond”, acts as a culmination of the various musical and lyrical elements Powell introduced throughout the EP. The intro is a great example of musical imagery, with a rather ominous layering of reverb washed guitars eventually turning to a sun-washed combo of clean guitars, organ, and drums. Powell juxtaposes his lyrics to the mood of the music to maintain the sense of gloom contrasted with moments of hope that the EP has consistently leaned on. While the EP isn’t dripping with energy, it elicits the kind of melancholy feeling of the first few dark rainy days of spring. A foreboding, dark overhead in the season of new life. Shelter Without Walls is available for streaming on October 5th, and Powell will be traveling around the state for performances shortly after, featuring some full-band sets and solo sets.