Exploring Madison's Music Scene
Mar 30, 2013
02:04 PMLocal Sounds
Song in Point: Katie Powderly – “Tables, Turning”
Katie Powderly has been making music around Madison for over a decade, primarily with country singer/songwriter Evan Murdock. Both musicians then spent several years with bluegrass band The Lonesome Rogues. Powderly left the Lonesome Rogues in 2007 and after the rest of the band split in 2008 she and Murdock teamed back up to form a duo they called the Kentucky Waterfalls. In 2009 they released their only recording, The Real Me. Powderly was seriously injured in an accident that laid her up for several months in late 2009 to early 2010, causing her to lose both her home and job.
The Real Me juxtaposed six old-school country songs written by Murdock with three more sophisticated and emotionally complicated songs by Powderly (you can read the review here).
The Kentucky Waterfalls disbanded in the summer of 2010, and in 2012 Powderly released a breathtaking self-produced recording entitled Slips of the Tongue (you can read the review here). The album was recorded at both Smart Studios (with the expert assistance of Mike XZirkel) in Madison and Elkgang Studios in Knoxville, Tennessee. The songs are gorgeously arranged, fusing elements of alt-country and folk and highlighted by Powderly’s sensational singing. Slips of the Tongue’s first three tracks are re-recordings of Powderly’s three songs from the Kentucky Waterfalls record. One of these, “Tables, Turning,” is the subject of this song breakdown and, particularly, its production values.
Production can be a dirty word to some folks, both creators and consumers of music. Some prefer the authentic warts-and-all-approach of live-in-the-studio takes with minimal overdubs (for the unfamiliar, overdubs are a product of multi-track recording which was invented, incidentally, by Wisconsin’s own Les Paul. They can range from adding a guitar solo or harmony vocals to basic tracks to “punching in” to fix wrong notes or flat vocal parts. More on that here). For others, production is an art form. Record producers grew in prominence along with the technology. Perhaps the most famous producer was George Martin, the Beatles’ producer who helped birth Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, a revolutionary recording when it was released in 1967.
One thing about production is certain. When you’ve been exposed to it and involved with it you will never hear music the same way again. In a way, it robs one of musical innocence and instills a more analytical way of hearing music. On the other hand, it provides an intellectual basis for understanding why you like what you’re hearing and how it was constructed to maximize effect.
Listen to the original version of “Tables, Turning” by the Kentucky Waterfalls. Two acoustic guitars and two vocals. Simple and quite enjoyable to listen to. Murdock’s guitar introduces the melodic theme. Notice that when the vocal enters, the guitar continues to play the theme behind it. Since this theme is also played between the choruses and verses, Powderly attempts to relieve the repetition by altering the notes slightly and adding little embellishments. There are noticeable warts on this recording, including string “slides” created by friction when the player slides his/her fingers for a distance on the guitar neck in-between chords or positions, and backing vocals that are perhaps ever-so-slightly flat and not quite together in phrasing. There are also a few “bum” notes on the guitar. A good song more than compensates for things of this nature - just ask Bob Dylan - and it’s clear this is a special composition.
Now listen to the version from Slips of the Tongue. Notice how the song starts with the vocal, not the guitar. Notice how much richer the vocal is. This is the result of using a decent (and very expensive) microphone, probably a Neumann, which is a world-class professional model. Note also the slower tempo. This gives the song more breathing space between the notes, allowing Powderly maximum expression. Inaddition, the background singers have developed a new approach to the part, augmenting its mournful quality. The beautiful slide guitar and the round, full-tone sound of the bass add to the impact. Most importantly, however, the guitar theme, so overused in the first version, is reduced to filling the vocal-less space between the choruses and the next verse. The tone of that guitar is specifically created to sit in its own “pocket” and to underscore the emotion of the song. If you understand sound effects you will also hear the reverb and chorusing effects that give that sound more simulated “space.” If you are listening on headphones you will notice that the first part of that now-familiar theme is played in the right headphone and there is actually another guitar stating the completion of it in the left earphone. This is the kind of thing that makes production art. You don’t appreciate that in a room, necessarily, and this is why you should always experience exceptional music with headphones to get the maximum effect (good ones – no crappy earbuds!).
The real question is, which one do you like better? While abundant evidence suggests that the Slips of the Tongue version is vastly superior, many would prefer the stripped-down basic approach where it sounds like Powderly and Murdock are sitting across from you in your living room. The answer might be this: Which one makes you feel the song more? Because that’s what good music does. It makes you feel the emotion of the performer. This is the beauty of music as well, that it’s completely subjective, and one man’s demo is another man’s Sgt. Pepper, so to speak.
One thing we would probably all agree on is that Slips of the Tongue is an outstanding record, one that you should buy.