The Powder Kegs are a pop trio from Philadelphia via NYC, featuring Dan Maroti on vocals, guitar, and keyboard, Ryan Dieringer on vocals and bass, and Sam McDougle on drums. Their rootsy pop rock & roll bends genres, and calls to mind personalities like Beck, Elvis Costello or Paul Simon. Dieringer explains, “our band’s take on indie-pop is eclectic, but grounded by a distinct folk bent.” He adds that their ‘folk bent’ was ostensibly acquired during their four-year stint as an old-time string band busking on the streets of New York City. But if you want to trace it back even further, you can, to the summer they spent in Vermont working as farmhands in exchange for room and board and taking Burlington’s clubs and bars by storm at night. When The Powder Kegs formed in 2005, they were as a six-piece ensemble featuring guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo, slide-guitar, harmonica, and vocal harmonies galore. This rootsy ensemble was featured on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor-the same radio show your Dad blasted in the car when you were a child on those interminably long road trips to Grandma’s house-where in 2007 they took home first prize for the “People in their Twenties Talent Show.” So is that the beginning? No, because long before the Powder Kegs, Maroti, Dieringer, and McDougle, who met in high school, were making music together.
And now, almost a decade later, they’ve returned to their roots in a sense, because the band is once again a trio. But they’ve traveled a long way. The Powder Kegs have relocated once more, abandoning the Big Apple for Philadelphia, and they’ve put another hundred miles between themselves and the mountains of Vermont, both literally and figuratively. McDougle put down the fiddle-at least as his primary axe-and took up his new residence behind the drum set, while Dieringer switched to electric bass. As Dieringer explains, their sound is still grounded by a folk bent but now it’s a little harder to see, obscured by a thick layer of pop. It isn’t easy for a band to change directions so sharply without confusing or, worse, alienating its fanbase, but to their credit The Powder Kegs have settled into their new home and new style with remarkable ease. And maybe that’s because in both incarnations they have played or now play the kind of music that just about anybody would be hard pressed not to enjoy.
Whether it’s the reggae inflections, buoyant vocal melody, or Spanish lyrics, A-side “La Mariposa” (The Butterfly) has all the markings of a summer beach jam. This song pushes things south of the border. Give me the palm trees, sand beneath my toes, and a frozen margarita. Well, almost. This isn’t Jimmy Buffet and it isn’t Jason Mraz, although fans of the latter would probably dig this. But thankfully it’s also got some edge and some substance. Dierienger, who wrote the song, describes it as “hip-hop influenced pop track” which is an accurate enough appraisal of a song which manages to incorporate both the rhythmic punch of hip hop and the melodic hooks characteristic of pop. It starts out softly enough, with a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, shaker, and vocals, but hits on “back and forth, back and forth” drive it into action. I’m always a sucker for that moment when the beat drops, and “La Mariposa” plays it up. The bass line is brilliant for its simplicity. Just a few notes, but it anchors everything down with a solid and very danceable groove. Anticipating the downbeat, it gives the song a vaguely latin groove, which jives well with the Spanish lyrics. So kick back and enjoy… until the chorus hits, and pushes things in a very different direction. The bass and drums cut away, leaving only electric piano and a somewhat subdued vocal melody, not to mention an overall sensation of weightlessness. Basically, the bottom drops out. Lyrics and groove alike evoke classic pop. “Baby, would you love me if I was 15 miles closer?” It’s a perfect chorus, not only for the contrast it provides-the tight but simple verse groove would probably become boring if sustained for three and a half minutes without pause-but also because but also because it sets the stage for another epic beat drop. Verse two? Bang! Indulgent? Maybe, but damn it feels good. “La Mariposa” also ends on an interesting note. That reggae inflected groove slowly builds, first with a tasty trombone solo performed by Dylan Hume and later an entire horn section (read: many layers of trombone overdubs) which grows into something resembling ska, but all the while maintaining that solid bass foundation.
B-side “Shake Me Down” is every bit as catchy as “La Mariposa” albeit for completely different reasons. This time Maroti steps up to the role of songwriter, which perhaps explains why keyboard is the glue that holds this track together. It’s a lot less bouncy, but harmonically very beautiful. The band describes it as a more “psychedelic groove track” which is an accurate enough description although, again, the pop influence is what stands out most. By pop, I mean 60’s pop. Vocals are processed to give them a vintage quality. The piano riff seems extremely predictable… until that extra measure thrown in at the end of every phrase. “The world will change the bedsheets of eternity,” 6, 7, 8, 9. “What you are and what you’ll never ever be,” 6, 7, 8, 9. But just when you’re beginning to get used to it, your expectations are shattered again and the third phrase ends after a conventional eight beats. The refrain pulls everything together well, with all instruments playing in rhythmic unison and then a short break before finding the groove again. The “ooooh” harmonies that kick in for the second verse give it a little more oomph and keep things interesting. Again, a trombone solo rises up at the end but unlike in “La Mariposa” it dons an epic rather than jazzy vibe. The song culminates with a sing along clap along section that brings to mind “Hey Jude.”
So where is that folk bent that the band likes to talk about? I see it mostly in the pleasant simplicity of their music. Rather than bogging everything down with unnecessary chords and notes, The Powder Kegs take an organic approach to their music and allow their songs to develop at a natural pace. The result is, simply put, enjoyable. I’ve yet to see them live, but from what I hear they put on a fantastic show. They’ll be going on tour this summer, and dropping by NYC on July 8th.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem095/01 La Mariposa.mp3
Shake Me Down
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem095/02 Shake Me Down.mp3