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Vermont singer-songwriter Ryan Power has been operating on the fringes of pop music for a little over a decade now, debuting with a self-titled full-length in 2002 and continuing to push MP3 and CD albums out into the world ever since. Last year saw his album ‘I Don’t Want To Die’ picked up by NNA Tapes and given a proper vinyl pressing, and it’s that label that he’s returning to with his most recent effort, ‘Identity Picks’.
‘Identity Picks’ is actually Power’s sixth album, and with so many records in the bag already, it’s a wonder how he still remains so little known, especially given how effective the internet can be when it comes to helping outsider musicians find audiences they might not otherwise. Power’s obscurity certainly shouldn’t be due to a lack of talent – ‘Identity Picks’ must be one of the most immediately satisfying albums I’ve heard in some time.
Given the predominance of bedroom producers, beatmakers, sound designers and hardware jammers over the past couple of years, Power’s flair for writing clear and considered pop songs is the most striking thing about the album. His songwriting owes itself clearly to bands like Scritti Politti and Prefab Sprout (Power has spoken openly of his admiration for these two groups in the past), and you can also hear echoes of groups like Sparks and The Associates in his music, bands that placed importance in quirky songwriting, unconventional yet hookish melodies, witty lyricism, and the tight interplay of instruments. It works very successfully, and when ‘Identity Picks’ is at its best you’ll struggle to hear something quite as fulfilling this year – just listen to the smooth R&B of Identity Picks or the inventive use of layered backing vocals and harmonies to close Well On Your Way (and the way it pulls the rug from under your feet with its abrupt end).
Whilst there hasn’t been a dearth of great outsider pop songwriters over the past few years – Ariel Pink, James Ferraro, Outer Limits Recordings and other artists across the hypnagogic spectrum stick out in my mind – Power is different in that there’s little in his music that could be perceived as ironic. It’s also notable that, unlike a lot of those artists, his recordings are presented with real clarity – ‘Identity Picks’, whilst obviously made on a limited budget and with limited tools, aims for studio sheen rather than the lo-fi aesthetics that often – necessarily – colour a lot of outsider music.
That said, the album isn’t the most polished. Entirely self-produced by Power (he works in a studio by day), it’s certainly accomplished in its production, but still has a way to go to compare to major label efforts or even bands releasing through mid-sized independents. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s frustrating mainly because you can’t help but imagine how much better the whole thing could sound if he was given more to work with. Take New Attitude, for example – it’s lush, but it could sound bigger and more widescreen, and it perhaps deserves to. Likewise, the drums often feel a little static, whilst the sound palette is a little restricted and samey, as if the sounds he uses aren’t quite up to the same standards of originality that his songs are.
The album’s major flaw is that it’s a little too long. It’s only eight tracks in length, but it lasts around 45 minutes. Some of its best songs, such as The Prize, could be trimmed by two minutes and be just as effective, if not more. Nevertheless, these are minor gripes that only stick out because the rest of the record works so well. It’s doubtful that ‘Identity Picks’ will be a turning point in Ryan Power’s career, but hopefully it’ll turn more people on to his wonderful world.