(Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of Use )
Be Mine (2011), 6.5/10
Do You Burn? (2013), 5/10
Arrest (2014), 5/10
War Shapes (2017), 7/10
Bitter Banquet (2018), 6/10
Machination (2021), 7/10

San Francisco's singer, composer and pianist Annie Lewandowski, originally played accordion with Seattle's violinist Tom Swafford and saxophonist Adam Diller in a deep-listening trio called Doublends Vert, documented on Doublends Vert (2004) and Cistern (2005). She then joined the band Emma Zunz (2006).

She debuted solo under the moniker Powerdove with the 12-song album Be Mine (2011), recorded in February 2009 at Mills College where she had studied improvisation. Far from jazz improvisation, the music is instead the most spartan kind of whispered bedroom-pop with the sole accompaniment of the guitar, and sometimes with timid echoes of other instruments in the background. She specializes in fragile, catatonic lullabies like Be Mine, Birdsong and Easter Story, but can also craft atmospheric vignettes like Sickly City (in which a trombone sneaks in), Sunlight and Moon and Cellophane (with an ominous rumble in the background). Ironically, the most melodic and arranged song is left for the closing, I Don't Mind, almost as an afterthought. The pace is never hurried. She takes her time to tell her stories. There is no noise. Even the sparse percussion found here and there is carefully placed to harmonize with the singing and the guitar. The album projects a feeling of crystal purity.

Powerdove became a duo in 2012 when, while living in England, she was joined by Thomas Bonvalet of L'Ocelle Mare for the recording of Do You Burn? (Murailles Music, 2013). Actually on that album they were a trio: Annie Lewandowski, John Dieterich (of Deerhoof) on guitars and Thomas Bonvalet on several instruments. The music is quite different because the two instrumentalists contribute mostly noise to her "pure" folkish songs. The songs seem to be sequenced from more difficult to more user-friendly. Fellow begins with a ear-splitting hissing drone and continues with a harsh jam for distorted stringed instruments. In Under Awnings it is instead the (brutalist) rhythm that collides with her gentle contralto. Past those brief orgies of chaos, more cohesive and emotional songs surface when the noises and her voice follow each other, starting with Do You Burn?. As it becomes more "normal", their music displays echoes of the Penguin Cafè Orchestra, especially in Love Walked In. It eventually returns to Lewandowski's simple, spartan, tinkling folk lullabies (notably All Along the Eaves and the very slow Out of the Rain). This is the typical "transition album". There are some bold experiments, and some half-baked attempts at being radio-friendly. The first album had the virtue of focusing on her real persona.

The noise-folk idea further investigated on Arrest (2014), but the result remains dysfunctional. When You're Near ruins one of her angelic lullabies with a hysterical gypsy dance. The distortion buries Seeing It, benefiting neither the noise nor the folk. The drum machine is annoying and probably unnecessary in Into the Sea. The album contains new versions of her old songs Birdsong, Easter Story and Be Mine (now a propulsive boogie!) but hardly improved over the originals. The bursts of stomping folk-rock in Paper Tiger are the one captivating trick of the album. There's also a cover of Arthur Russell's ballad You Can Make Me Feel Bad.

Lewandowski and Bonvalet were joined by percussionist Chad Popple for War Shapes (2017), a more balanced collection, recorded in August 2016. In general, the better arrangements seem to cause a dejected tone in the singer, whether in the industrial-folk hybrid Stranger Killer or in the deconstructed jazz ballad War Shapes or in the noir, somnolent, empty blues Bone Deep (the atmospheric apex). The organ and guitar distortions and the martial rhythm powerfully imprison the medieval chant of Raincoats. Her contralto lament glides over Bonvalet's watery effect in Undercover. Percussion and organ concoct a crescendo of sorts for her emotional peak, Crimson and Clover (not the 1960s hit). The closer, The Heart Estranges, is the one place where the noise prevails over the melody, musique concrete on the loose. Overall, this album greatly refined Lewandowski's and Bonvalet's formula for the unlikely coupling of noise and folk singing. Note that almost all songs still last less than three minutes, like on previous albums.

Bitter Banquet (fo'c'sle records, 2018) is a multi-media song cycle inspired by Euripides' tragedies. Each of the ten songs explores a character in those tragedies. Annie Lewandowski sings and plays piano, harmonium and electronics, helped out by Theresa Wong on cello, Russell Greenberg on percussion and vibraphone, and David Yearsley on harpsichord, fortepiano and clavichord. Half of the songs adopt a neoclassical style, notably Hecuba (for harpsichord, cello and piano) and Phaedra (a whopping six minutes long). Other songs employ droning arrangements and echo Bjork (Iphigenia, with droning keyboards) and Nico (Alcestis). Medea is for solo guitar and no less poignant. The closer, Aegisthus, another slow and spartan lied, has perhaps the most effective melody. The album's only drawback is that it is at times a bit repetitive.

Relocating to Ithaca, in New York state, Lewandowski collaborated with zoologist Katy Payne of Cornell University in studying humpback whale songs. She composed the 18-minute Cetus - Life After Life (2018) for humpback whale song and chimes. She also collaborated with software engineers to research the songs of humpback whales. She became a professor in the department of music at Cornell University.

Only one of the eight songs is less than three minutes long on Machination (Murailles Music, 2021), and this simple statistic signals the difference in the quality of production. The conventional ballad Machination and the suave folk-rock elegy Frost Broken Willow signal a simplification of the sound, but instead most of the album is devoted to sophisticated atmospheric creations, starting with the dreamy slocore Red Stain (Bonvalet the noise maker at his best) to the noir, expressionist lied Bells and Glass. Bonvalet begins Someone Else (Powerdove's longest composition yet) with a booming percussive pattern that contains the ticking of a clock followed by somber liturgical organ chords. The lugubrious harmonium of Public Oblivion evokes Nico's funereal eulogies but Bonvalet's thin polyrhythms lend it an almost gamelan flavor. The undulating music of Menace or Breath mimics breathing while the singing returns to the catatonic pace of Powerdove's debut. There is both variety and innovation in the way this duo decorates Lewandowski's words, a rarity among singer-songwriters even for those who have access to elaborate arrangements.

(Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )