ALBUM REVIEW: The Powder Kegs – “The Amanicans”

I CAN’T TELL whether it seems like ages ago or just yesterday that I was drunkenly harassing Sam and Ryan of The Powder Kegs at the Raven Lounge in Philadelphia.  It was mid-September and me, Alex, Anshu, and Marco had moved into the city only a few weeks before.  Not knowing where to go on a Saturday night, we found ourselves stumbling about the center city streets until finally, fatefully, the Raven beckoned us in with open wings and $3 PBR pounders.  After sixth months of intermittent patronage, I can tell you now that I’d rather spend my Saturday night at an Arby’s before setting foot in the Raven, but back then, it seemed like a good spot for drinks and dancing.  Not being one to bust a move anywhere near a dance pole, I perched out with the guys, chatting away and scoping the scene.  After a bit, our old friend Sam McDougle arrived.  He was one of the first familiar faces we’d seen since moving, and it was good to catch up about life in Philly and old times at Vassar.

I had spent a good part of the past summer and spring listening to The Powder Kegs’ “Empty Side” EP, a collection of five songs that marked my reluctant and inevitable transition from sort of jadedly putting up with  The Powder Kegs, to really liking them.  To be clear, I’ve never felt any bitterness toward the current incarnation of The Powder Kegs.  Rather, as many will recall, back during my earlier years at Vassar, The Powder Kegs were a completely different group–both in members and musical style.  Originally an old-time, folksy blue grass band, they played countless shows at Vassar during my freshman and sophomore year that had people tapping their legs and flailing their arms to the sounds of Jake Hoffman’s twangy banjo and McDougle’s unflinching fiddle.  It’s not that I didn’t respect their work–they were a very talented group making music that you don’t often hear being produced by young guys, let alone college students–and their music seemed to make people really happy.  Besides the fact that I’m not really into bluegrass all that much, the reason I never fully embraced The Powder Kegs during my first few years at Vassar was because I was jealous of their success.  It sounds stubborn, I know, but back in high school there formed a competition within me–I wanted no one else to succeed because I used to be in a band myself (two actually: “The Jinksons” and “Flatline”).  I could never fully support the other bands from my school because I viewed them as our competition.  I guess I saw it as some sort of awkward challenge to see who could be the best (but still really shitty) band at Hempfield.  Anyway, the point of all this is that I wished it were me playing at the Mug with the Powder Kegs, getting everyone to do the hoe-down on the dance floor.  I tell this anecdote to show how far I’ve come in appreciating what The Powder Kegs have done.  Over the course of the past year, I’ve come to really like them (a first for me) and I’m completely pushing for them to take that proverbial “next step” and get the national attention they deserve.  And that’s exactly the reason I was harassing Sam and Ryan at the Raven:

“I’ve really been digging the Empty Side EP,” I shouted, “but you guys need to get something new out, and get it out now!  It’s been almost a year…the window of opportunity is closing!”

Having to yell over the Raven’s speakers as they blasted that “so many ways to love ya” song probably made it seem like I was berating them, but really I was just enthusiastically trying to encourage them to get some new material out, so that they could ride what I perceived to be a wave of momentum that had been generated by their release of the Empty Side.  Although that EP was excellent, at only five songs in length, I was worried it wouldn’t be enough to get the attention of college radio stations and music blogs across the country, and that if they didn’t release a full-length soon, they might fizzle out of the new-music spotlight.

“Producing good music takes time, you’ve got to do it the right way,” said Ryan.  Maybe I paraphrased that response a bit, but the general reaction from the two of them was happy to hear that I was wanting more from them, but also confident and wise in the sense that they knew what they were doing, and the music would come when it was ready.

Finally, that time has arrived, and I’m glad to say it was worth the wait.  About two weeks ago, I received a downloadable pre-release of their new album, “The Amanicans”, which was officially released yesterday, March 30th, 2011.  Here’s my take on the new album:

It’s not often that you get to hear a band’s new album performed live, on multiple occasions, before ever hearing the final, recorded product.  As the Powder Kegs have been writing and recording this album over the past six or so months, I’ve seen them preform at multiple venues across Philadelphia, from Rathaus in West Philly, to a block party in South Philly, to the North Star bar just one block from my house.  At each show, they’ve unveiled more new material, which up to this point, I’ve grown to appreciate as a constant work in progress.

Getting to hear the finalized studio release, however, has allowed me to enjoy these songs in new and exciting ways.  Namely, so much that goes into playing a live show is the performance–maintaining a sense of energy and showmanship, rocking out and just enjoying yourself and making sure the crowd is having a good time.  Whereas the studio album allows for so much more nuance.  When I plug in my headphones and listen to the tracks, I can really hear the details and start to get an idea of what the artist is trying to do by focusing on their use of mixing and instrumentation, the layers and song structure.

While these details become more apparent after a few listens, one of the immediate joys of listening to The Amanicans comes from its unbridled eclecticism.  They’ve found a way to draw from so many of the bands that I’ve loved over the past two or three years, making it feel like this album was made for me.  That’s a good thing, because the album wasn’t made for me, but if they can resonate on that level you know they’re on to something.

Although it can seem unimaginative or denigrating when critics review music by comparing it to the sound of another band, my initial reaction is to figure out who the hell the The Powder Kegs remind me of.  The problem is, I’ll rack my brain trying to figure it out without ever coming to a solid conclusion. Although The Powder Kegs have managed to draw from a vast array of pop, rock, and folk influences from the work of bands like Dr. Dog, Vampire Weekend, Phosphorescent, The Morning Benders, Passion Pit, and Wilco, they’ve managed to do so in a way that emulates no singular pre-existing niche, but rather a variety of sounds that, through their comprehensive eclecticism, have become uniquely their own. Therein lies the beauty of a young band with obvious potential that has yet to carve out a unified identity.  In other words, it’s clear that “The Amanicans” is fun to listen to, but you can’t help but wonder: how great can these guys become?

Perhaps the most telling answer to this question will come from The Powder Kegs’ two very talented lead vocalists.  It is a rare gift for a band to be blessed with two singers equally capable of elevating any given song from “good” to “great”.  Although Ryan Dieringer and Dan Maroti take turns singing on The Amanicans, one of the album’s best songs (albeit a stylistic outlier), called “when the body tricks the mind”, stands out due to their hypnotic harmonization.  More ambient and distorted than the other songs on the album, The Deli music blog writes that “It reminds us of a more dreamy, psychedelic Death Cab for Cutie, but with angular post punk guitar riffs to give it some balls.”  It’s true the song’s got more balls than the rest, but its the Kegs’ cohesiveness that stands out.  Moreover, McDougle’s drums are they key here, guiding and driving the rolling guitar line and thumping bass in ways that make me think it wouldn’t hurt for these guys to rock out a bit more often.

In “Wendy Is Water” the album begins to hit its stride by striking a comfortable balance, focusing on conventional song structure while hinting at themes of the impending and inevitable loss of love.  Here, it’s the unknown allure of some American life that takes precedent.  “The Sea” takes on a much bleaker tone, suggesting a love that is not meant to be, regardless of the confines of contemporary society: “I will see you as you’re growing younger, You will see me as I’m growing older.”

“Say You Love Me”, one of my favorite songs from the album, follows in the same vein as Empty Side’s bass-driven “La Mariposa”.  It’s the most soothing song on the album and the refrain ultimately paints a rather pleasant image, after three refrains of “say you love me” the ultimatum is finally revealed: “And I won’t sell your pictures, to the reporter that’s standing on our lawn”.  It’s so delightfully ambiguous that the context is rendered irrelevant, if only because of its unaffected tenderness.

In “Broke Time”, Dieringer’s allusions to love begin to take on a more serious tone, grounded in some troubled reality, as opposed to Maroti’s dream-like hopelessness in “The Sea” or his defeated reverence for the unattainable American dream (girl?) in “Wendy Is Water”.  “Broke Time” starts off like an impending storm with its dark bluesy riffs.  Despite its references to the everyday slog of work, Dieringer manages to again find beauty out of an otherwise dull landscape, mentioning “the scent of her bleach blonde hair / I was flowered by her damn-it-all attitude.”  But there’s also a possible drug addiction reference here, “Everyday she wakes up she needs a codon to put another kettle on the stove” just as there is in “Hospital” as the first lines of the entire albums hints at the possibility of some unspecified, hidden demons: “Volcanos erupting, the smoke’s in your brain / If this time it don’t kill me, it’ll come back again.”

As the album nears it’s end, “Coming Together, Falling Apart” allows the Kegs to really flex their indie pop muscles in one last dance-worthy hurrah.  The song changes directions so much that it works to epitomize the unpredictability of the entire album in one track.  Finally, the closing title track yearns to be an allegorical ballad of Beatles-esque proportions.  “So, you love to be in love” the song repeats, a line you can’t help but carry with you.  In fact, many of the lines will stick with you as the album is not lacking on catchiness or fun.  Overall, there’s a ton to enjoy here, and I’m proud of what they’ve done.

I always like to see a band change their sound as they grow and mature together.  It seems The Powder Kegs are primed to do just that.  Bands that have two great singer/song-writers, like Dr. Dog and The Beatles, also have more of a burden in managing their own abundance of creativity and talent.  When two front men lead a band, they inevitably push each other to be better.  Despite the urge to compete for the driver’s seat, they are charged with the task of uniting as a singular auteur through which the band can express its uniqueness.  I have no doubt that McDougle’s vast musical experiences will continue to ground Dieringer and Maroti, with the keyboarding of Daniel Hume, as they collectively push each other to expand into new genre-breaking material.  As for now, I won’t be getting on their case anymore about making new music–they can enjoy the fact that their first full length album is finally out, and rest assured knowing that they nailed it.


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