Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery – Man Is Born for Trouble
The origin story of Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery is pivotal for an appreciation of Powell’s music. The name, inspired by the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, the first silent western committed to celluloid, evokes Powell’s affinity for history, American aestheticism, and art that has passed through generations and endured technological revolutions. Hence the triptych of songs titled “Jack Kerouac,” “Leo Tolstoy” and “Walt Whitman,” on Joshua Powell & the GTR’s most recent album, Man Is Born for Trouble (released in 2013). A relationship with the work of such literary giants is essential in understanding what informs Powell’s writing, but listeners need not have revisited The Dharma Bums, War and Peace, or Leaves of Grass in the years since any undergrad glory days to find much to fall in love with on Man Is Born for Trouble.
An equally important aspect of Powell’s backstory is the fact that he grew up in south Florida before ultimately coming of age, personally and artistically, in the town of Anderson, Ind., where he recently graduated from the private Christian college Anderson University with a degree in music business (also where he currently teaches). At Anderson, long an industrial town which has seen its fair share of rough economic breaks the past few decades, Powell says he was “inspired by the work of writers like Wendell Berry and the actions of social entrepreneurs like Graham Brown (USI) and Ben Orcutt (Buckskin Bikes) and espoused a reformationist theology of place, which fostered a desire to see Anderson rebuilt.” That internal heavy lifting comes across in Powell’s songs and, coupled with the fact that Powell and the GTR played roughly 300 shows in 42 states on a recent nine-month DIY tour with all booking and promotion handled solely by Powell, it speaks volumes about his passions as a writer, musician and man in his early twenties.
Joshua Powell & the GTR (Powell is the chief songwriter, vocalist, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Powell’s brother, Jacob, plays drums, percussion and delivers backing vocals, and a rotating cast of musical friends round out band, typically a touring trio, at any given time) play folk-rock with an emphasis on storytelling. Don’t let the word “folk” scare you away if you’re given to customary exhaustion by the pop-folk outfits who have dominated commercial airplay the past few years; Man Is Born for Trouble (the title taken from the Book of Job) has a spirit more kindred to Sufjan Stevens’ records from Seven Swans to Illinois, Fionn Regan and Harvest-era Neil Young than any of the Grammy-winning radio-ready folk bands of the 2010s. Powell labels it “fearsome folk,” a term that doubles as the name of his own blog, with its mission of “reducing life to its lowest terms, in the industry and on the road.
Man Is Born for Trouble is the sound of lushly composed chamber-folk with its creator’s heartstrings unwound while portraying vivid snapshots of rustic romanticism. In a sense, it’s as Americana as it gets: indebted to this land, born of a striving mind and awash in compassionate spirit. It’s also a true album: ten songs that form a cohesive whole meant to be consumed in full, no standalone singles or throwaway moments.
Decked out in troubadour threads and consumed by soul-searching, Joshua Powell & the GTR’s songs walk a crossroads of revival-in-the-river folk mysticism and barroom-ready guitar-driven rock with conscience and existential wonder. Perhaps, the finest example of both sides blending together is the climax of “Parable to Calcutta,” when Powell howls “He’s making me HOOOOOLY!” against pile-driver drum crashes and a barn-burning guitar solo. Know also, this is not Christian rock; this is American storytelling put to song and rooted in the classics of literature, rock and philosophy. Powell’s songs present him as an unapologetic seeker, enamored with nature, history, spirituality and art, and, as he said in a recent interview, “I don’t want to be anywhere near Christian radio.”
Minutes prior to the climax in “Parable to Calcutta,” Powell sings, “I have cracks where none should be / I’m spilling my guts and coming up short.” Poignant verses like that one spring up deliciously often throughout Man Is Born for Trouble, typically with delicate vocal harmonies affecting enough to seemingly make time stand still; the lovely ballad “Deep Water Believers” finds Powell singing, “I am just a stray dog in a crooked creek…All people are patients; all rooms are waiting rooms,” while the intensely gorgeous duet “Tiny Panic Attacks” channels Powell’s internal wrestling with theology and aspects of religion that began to take life going into the recording of the album. Such penetrating honesty clothed in harmony and melodicism, coupled with intermittent flourishes of gently plucked banjo, trembling mandolin, harmonica, organ and doses of brawny, Southern guitar gusto, is what makes Powell’s songs so much more eclectic and interesting than any folk-leaning tunes on Top 40 radio. On “From Hell to Houston,” the electric closer that grapples with religion and disbelief in end-times fears in the form of an “on the road” anthem, Powell sings, “Drive / I always drive / to the most strung-out and vacant parts. And then / I’ll find my zen on the tuning pegs of every angel’s harp.” That should tell you pretty much anything you need to know about Man Is Born for Trouble and the spirit of Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery.
Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery’s Man Is Born for Trouble is out now via the band’s own label.
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes is a freelance music journalist who regularly contributes to NUVO alt-weekly in Indianapolis, founded his personal music blog, Division St. Harmony, has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee, and has written for the Aux.Out. column at Consequence of Sound.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
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