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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1779

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Christopher Bell: Fire
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/16/2014)

Despite rampant musical diversity in their approach. singer-songwriters are, in most people's minds, acoustic guitar wielding folkies. This series has featured quite a few who have broken out of that instrumental mold -- singer-songwriter-keyboard players, of course, along with harpists, bass players, violinists and cellists among others.

This week we have a new recording by another interesting entry in the ranks of singer-songwriter cellists, who also include Lindsay Mac and Ben Sollee. It's Christopher Bell, and his new fourth CD is called Fire.

From DeKalb, Illinois, Christopher Bell became involved with music at age 10, and then pursued a major of audio engineering. He has come to combine both with electronic devices on his cello with looping an multitracking to liven up his solo performances. He is also known for touring by bicycle, canoe, on foot and more conventional automotive means, performing a gruelling live schedule. He has also worked with other groups, including with 10,000 Maniacs,

Bell also runs a studio as well as a booking agency. His new CD is very much a solo effort, with his cello and studio technique making up most of the instrumental sounds, including some on-the-cello percussion, though he does occasionally play some additional instrumentation including mandolin. He is an interesting lyricist and an appealing vocalist, thus achieving his singer-songwriter credibility. His music is marked by a good deal of eclecticism, incorporating influences from jazz to hip-hop. Bell also plugs his cello into a Hendrix-like fuzz box and makes some more rock-oriented sounds. It all works rather well, and there's enough variety on the CD that it does not particularly come across as the album dominated by a cello. Most of the material is original, but he does include two covers, one by Paul Simon and another by a somewhat lesser-known singer-songwriter Lewis Knudsen.

Interestingly, the running order of the CD is rather different than the printed track listings, which can cause a little confusion. The CD opens with an fuzzed up cello piece given the title expressed as two dashes. <<>>

That leads into Am I What I Think, an example of Bell using his cello to create most of the instrumental sounds. The upbeat rock tune with rather philosophical lyrics comes across as but intriguing and appealing. <<>>

Bell does what amounts to being a piano ballad on the track Answers Came Closer, which nicely makes use of his cello in perhaps a bit more familiar a role. <<>>

The first of the cover songs is Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al, which Bell performs on his cellos through various studio techniques. And while the result is fairly interesting in its instrumental textures, the whole concept of the track is rather similar to Paul Simon's original, so it does not really add much to the song. <<>>

The other cover is The Cost of Living, by Lewis Knudsen, a fellow-singer-songwriter. This is one of the best instances of Christopher Bell using his cellos as the accompaniment almost exclusively. <<>>

Bell puts more of his electronic effects to use layering cello sounds on a track called Fire in My Heart. It's one of the most musically creative of the tracks on the album. <<>>

Another intriguing piece is called I Dreamt. The very eclectic and varied textures of Bell's arrangement fit well with the stream of consciousness lyrics about a dream. <<>>

One of the more comtemplative-sounding pieces is Connect the Dots, it's also one of the highlights of the album lyrically. <<>>

The CD ends with probably its rockiest track, Rock n Roll Can't Save Your Soul. Bell does a lot of electronic tampering with his cello sound, while also playing some mandolin. <<>>

Fire the new CD by singer-songwriter-cellist Christopher Bell is an intriguing and musically satisfying album that brings a different sonic twist to the art of the singer-songwiter, without its becoming a gimmick. It's a record that I think will have surprising staying power from a combination of the good writing, Bell's worthy vocals and the distinctive instrumental textures.

Bell produced, engineered, mixed and mastered his CD, and we'll give him a rare grade "A" for the sound quality. I might quibble with some of the effects used on the cello, but it does provide an interesting pallet of sounds. But a major sonic plus is that CD has a decent dynamic range, it can go soft or build to full volume. It was not badly over-compressed as most albums are these days. It says something when what should be standard good audio practice has to be singled out for special praise.

One does not usually think about a folkie playing a cello, let alone with a bunch of electronic effects, but Christopher Bell, on his new album, shows that adding some sonic originality to the familiar singer-songwriter medium can make for distinctive and worthwhile listening.

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