KATIE POWDERLY – Slips of the Tongue
(2012 Red-Winged Blackbird Records)
Buy and stream here
I’m not sure how Slips of the Tongue slipped by me for so long. Released on her own label, Red-Winged Blackbird Records almost exactly a year ago, this album immediately struck me as one of the top recordings I’ve ever heard from a Madison-area artist. It’s clear how much effort and care went into this album’s making. It’s also clear how much its creator, Katie Powderly, believes in it as a similar amount of effort is going into its promotion. Powderly sold her belongings, moved into an RV last April and hit the road for her fifty-state “Sea to Shining Sea” tour. You can read about her exploits on her tour blog.
Powderly produced this record herself and what a remarkable job she’s done. First she enlisted Smart Studios and Mike Zirkel to record the basics. A top-notch flight of musicians from Madison were recruited: violinist Jon Vriesacker, who, in addition to playing violin in the Madison Symphony, enjoys dabbling in a variety of styles including bluegrass and jazz while performing with the likes of Mark Croft, Geri DiMaggio and the Kissers; guitarist Andrew Harrison who plays with Whitney Mann and Earl Foss and the Brown Derby and who also toured with Chicago’s Joe Pug; bassist Nick Mader who was a member of Big Mouth Cooperative, a be-bop jazz revivalist group that were regulars at the late Café Montmartre; drummer Ben Wolf of the North Country Drifters and vocalist Brian Knapp of the Ghost Town Council.
If that weren’t an impressive cast already, Powderly then took the music to Knoxville, Tennessee, recording in ex-Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor’s recording studio with another set of polished artists as detailed in her bio: “This group just so happened to include some of East Tennessee’s best known Americana artists, including bassist Bryn Davies, who currently tours with Jack White after a long stint with up-and-comer Justin Townes Earle, but who has also recorded and toured with such luminaries as Guy Clark, Tony Rice Unit, Patty Griffin, and others. Jill Andrews, Josh Oliver, and Tom Pryor form the rest of the Tennessee contingent, names you might recognize as members of the former everybodyfields or from The Black Lillies, who have been recently featured on CMT and have played over a dozen times at The Grand Ole Opry.”
By now you may have put two-and-two together and concluded that the music here is straddling the lines between folk, Americana and country music, and you’d be right, but the songwriting eclipses all of these individual styles, creating an impressively singular and highly accomplished artistic statement. Then there is Powderly’s singing which has drawn comparisons to Gillian Welch. Her voice is weathered but powerful and authentic, a strong woman who has learned her lessons well in life while still being emotionally vulnerable.
Every song is a gem on Slips of the Tongue. The album starts out with three songs that Powderly previously recorded with her duo Kentucky Waterfalls, which also included Evan Murdock. (That band released one album, The Real Me and you can read the review here.) The contrast between these versions is startling. (I highlighted these production elements in a recent post to the Local Sounds blog on Madison Magazine.) Seven seconds into the opening track, “All the King’s Horses,” it’s clear these versions exist on an entirely different plane. Slowing the tempos down allows the songs to breathe and for Powderly to convey the longing emotions at their core. Vriesacker’s fiddle solo is so expertly captured you can feel the friction of the bow on the strings. Pryor’s pedal steel adds a hauntingly beautiful melancholy, a common occurrence on the album. Of the three previously-recorded tunes “Tables Turning” is the highlight with its infectious melody and understated guitar refrain, both of which are guaranteed to stay pleasantly stuck in your head for some time.
If “Tables, Turning” tells the tale of an impending parting, the following track “Bridges, Burning” looks back on that actuality; a brilliant bit of connective, narrative songwriting. The lyrical elements play like a story, all the songs tying together with the same sense of loss and romantic yearning. The gravity of this situation gets amplified by Mader’s bowed bass in “Hot Air Balloon,” a foundation so heavy there’s no hope of lift-off. Harrison’s guitar on “Let Me Go” is sheer brilliance, this track being the closest thing to a toe-tapper. The most overtly country track, “Carry Me, Hold Me,” carries on for a full seven-and-a-half minutes. “Lullabye” is gorgeous; with its muti-tracked strings and distant guitars it sounds like a Daniel Lanois production. The album actually jettisons the regret on “Yet to Come,” a sadly recounted tale of (possible?) reconciliation that leaves the listener with an uplifting feeling but nothing to do – except press “play” again.
Rarely do the beats-per-minute seem to top 100 throughout the whole of Slips of the Tongue, but you’ll savor every deliberate moment of its sheer beauty, honesty and impact. An unequivocal triumph, this album will stand as one of the Madison area’s classic recordings.