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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1652

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Ollabelle: Neon Blue Bird
by George Graham

(Thirty Tigers Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/10/2011)

One of the more interesting recent phenomena in the proliferation of retro music is the growing number of bands and performers who are turning to the old traditional folk, blues and Gospel songs that were mainstays in the 1960s folk music boom for their influence. I guess what goes around comes around, and you can't keep the good old folk songs down for long.

This week we have the newest CD by one of those groups that started out in the neo-traditional mode, but on their new recording, much of the music is original though some songs do have that traditional sound. The band is called Ollabelle, and their new, third CD is titled Neon Blue Bird.

Ollabelle was named after the famous folksinger of the earlier 20th Century, Olla Belle Reed. Ollabelle, the band, got its start after 9/11 in New York. The group consisted of six different independent artists who would gather in a folk club in lower Manhattan to sing old spirituals as a way of providing a little uplift. They decided to make a recording of their music which came to the attention of producer T-Bone Burnett, who had a production deal with a major label. So Olabelle's eponymous first CD appeared in 2004. It was a great collection of highly eclectic arrangements of mostly the old traditional spirituals. Then in 2006, the band, diminished by one member to a quintet, put out Riverside Battle Songs in which they moved away from the dominance of traditional music into doing more of what the individual members were known for doing, being songwriters.

In the five years since Riverside Battle Songs, the group's members have again turned their attention to their own musical careers, but also life-events like marriages and births. But they have reconvened, this time releasing their CD independently and raising production funds through fan social networking. They recorded at Levon Helm's studio in Upstate New York -- a natural location with Helm's daughter Amy a founding member of Ollabelle. On Neon Blue Bird they took a similar approach to their last album, with most of the eleven tracks being originals, with a couple of traditional tunes. They also cover some contemporary composers, most of them from the rock world. Of the original music, there are tracks written by several members of the band. I would also say that this CD is a bit more electric in sound than its predecessors, though acoustic instruments still predominate.

As on their last recording, the group is largely self-contained, with Any Helm, who plays the mandola and sings; Australian-born Fiona McBain on vocals and guitar; Byron Isaacs on bass and vocals, who comes from a jazz background; Glenn Patscha on keyboards and vocals, and Tony Leone on drums and vocals. There are some additional musicians such as Jimi Zhivago, who also appeared on their last CD, on guitar and harmonica. It's interesting to note the stylistic differences in the original tracks by the respective members with their different backgrounds. But all together, it's a nice mix, and as before, the group's own music fits well with their rearrangements of the traditional and cover material.

The CD opens with a cover of a rock song, You're Gonna Miss Me, by Australian rocker Paul Kelly. They turn the song into an interesting mix of soul, African-American Gospel influence, along with an old-time banjo sound. <<>>

The first of the originals is called One More Time, written by Glenn Patscha, who does the lead vocals. It becomes a kind of country folk song, and somewhat different from most of Ollabelle's previous material. <<>>

One of the traditional songs that the band reworks is Be Your Woman. It comes across as one of the more interesting tracks, with its eclectic mix of a rock beat, bluesy harmonica and more of that African-American Gospel sound. <<>>

Quite different still is Fiona McBain's song Wait for the Sun. Stylistically it's reminiscent of mellow pop of the early 1970s, a' la Carole King. <<>>

Another cover a song by a contemporary composer is Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes by veteran folk and blues man Taj Mahal. It's a further facet of this varied album, though hardly the most memorable on the CD. <<>>

Ollabelle's sound is primarily folk, blues and Gospel-oriented, but their treatment of the traditional song The Butcher Boy is surprisingly atmospheric. It turns out to be another highlight of the album. <<>>

Another of the rock covers the band does is a Chris Whitley song called Dirt Floor. The lyrics sound like the old spirituals that the band got its start performing. It's definitely at the rock end of the stylistic spectrum for Ollabelle. <<>>

The CD ends with perhaps its most creative re-invention of an old song. Swanee River, the classic by Stephen Foster, has a kind of gentle African beat along with more sonic atmospherics. <<>>

Neon Blue Bird the new third CD by Ollabelle continues the gradual evolution from the band's beginnings playing old spirituals to emphasizing original music and more contemporary composers. With several writers in the band with diverse backgrounds, the original music spans a fairly wide range from retro pop to music hinting at traditional folk. The group also has widened its sound some, getting a bit more electric at times. The result is a satisfying recording that is eclectic but not scattered.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The acoustic instrumentation is well recorded, and the vocals have a pleasing sound devoid of unnecessary effects. Dynamic range, how the recording handles the differences between loud and soft, though, is mediocre.

Ollabelle was one of the first of the current crop of groups to specialize in reworking traditional folk songs. They have moved on to more diverse material but still continue their engaging sound that has won the group so many fans, including other artists.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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