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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1360

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by George Graham

(Columbia/DMZ Records 90572 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/24/2004)

It's a sad fact that it usually takes something from outside of the world of music for the public to become aware of some style or trend in music. More often than not it's a Hollywood film that brings to public attention a musical style that has generally been around for quite a while. An excellent example of that is the film O Brother Where Art Thou which nearly four years ago appeared with some traditional style folk music in the soundtrack. Not long thereafter, the soundtrack for the film became a huge hit, and bluegrass musicians who had been making excellent music for decades in relative obscurity suddenly found themselves part of a popular trend. Somewhat surprisingly, this has not passed like a typical fad, but has spawned what seems like a fairly widespread interest in traditional folk music. Both younger bluegrass artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek and veterans like Del McCoury have suddenly found themselves with bigger audience than they had ever seen, and some commercial country music stations were actually letting a little bluegrass slip onto the air.

In addition to the public interest in folk music, increasing numbers of younger artists are turning to traditional styles, and reviving old folk songs in new versions. Natalie Merchant, John Mellencamp, David Johansen, and Dolly Parton are some of the popular artists who have been recently turning to what could be validly called folk music for influences and songs.

This week we have another good example. In this case, it's a new group drawing for the most part on old traditional material, and serving it up with a fascinating mix of influences, from traditional to contemporary. They call themselves Ollabelle, named after the great folksinger Ola Belle Reed, and the group itself bring together a rather intriguing mix of styles through the respective members' backgrounds.

Ollabelle is a New York based sextet formed as an informal collective in late 2001. Its members are Amy Helm, a Woodstock, New York, native vocalist and daughter of Levon Helm of The Band, who has been in many bands over her musical career starting in her teens. She had primarily sung in blues bands. Also serving as one of the group's vocalists is Fiona McBain, who is originally from Sydney, Australia. She came to the US and New York to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. Brooklyn-based Byron Isaacs is the bassist and has served a similar function in various other diverse groups, and also performed as a singer-songwriter in his own right. Keyboard man Glenn Patcha is from Canada, and spent several years in New Orleans, absorbing that city's music, especially jazz, and has worked and recorded with various New Orleans jazz musicians. Rounding out the group are guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jimi Zhivago, a long-time New York session musician and producer; and drummer Tony Leone, also from a jazz background. The group describe themselves as a collective, and indeed there is no member who is consistently the lead vocalist, and what songwriting the band does is apportioned out among the members.

Ollabelle grew out of a regular get-together at a Greenwich Village club in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Each of the members had their own respective careers at the time, but this loose musical aggregration soon found themselves attracting bigger and bigger crowds. Guitarist Zhivago introduced the band to producer Steve Rosenthal, who decided to record the band "on speculation." The recording was brought to the attention of T-Bone Burnett, who was the music producer for the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. Burnett became executive producer, and the CD was released on a major label.

On their eponymous debut album Ollabelle brings their own distinctive approach to the folk music revival. They do primarily traditional material, but instead of doing it either authentically or with a very modern accompaniment, serve it up with an interesting mixture of 60s Memphis soul, older folk and Gospel styles, and gutbucket blues. There are slide guitars and pump organs in the instrumentation. Gospel-style vocal choruses mingle with an old Wurlitzer electric piano, so often identified with the sound of Memphis soul. And there is some original material that sounds even older than the folk songs they dig up. The result is a pleasing album that demonstrates imagination, good musicianship, appealing vocal harmonies, and a kind of musical camaraderie that immediately stands out. Ollabelle genuinely seem to be enjoying what they are doing, which is more than can be said for records by a lot of pop performers on the scene.

The CD starts with a Gospel styled, mostly a cappella piece called Before This Time by Bessie Jones and folklorist Alan Lomax. The group's performance is spirited, and evokes the sound of traditional African American church singing. <<>>

Ollabelle perform a number of rather well-known traditional folk and blues songs. One of them is Soul of a Man, to which Ollabelle give an eclectic mix of influences from the bluesy electric guitar with pump organ. The result is first-rate. <<>>

As mentioned, Ollabelle's members do write material that sounds as if it is many decades old. Get Back Temptation by keyboard man Glenn Patcha inhabits a curious intersection of Gospel, swamp blues and soul. The result is also outstanding. <<>>

Ollabelle also takes up a Carter Family song, The Storms Are on the Ocean, to which they give a quiet introspective treatment with Fiona McBain doing the lead vocal. <<>>

The group turns to a tasteful blues setting for their version of No More My Lawd. <<>>

With all the traditional music on the album, they do include one cover tune from an unexpected source, the Rolling Stones. I Am Waiting is transformed into another near-Gospel experience. <<>>

A rather different approach is taken on another traditional song that a number of artists have been doing lately, John the Revelator, recorded years ago by Blind Willie Johnson. The band plugs in, turns it up, and delivers the song in a seven-beat rhythm, for a kind of mutant swamp blues treatment. <<>>

One of the most striking songs is another original by Glenn Patscha, I Don't Want to Be That Man. The starkly scaled back arrangement is haunting. <<>>

The generous 14-track CD ends with another traditional song, All Is Well, which the group says was inspired by some sheet music they found that was published in 1849. Here the sound is of an intimate prayer meeting. <<>>

Ollabelle the debut CD by the group of same name is another in a continuing series of new adaptations of traditional or old-style music by young bands who may not even have been born when the 1960s folk music revival was under way. The results have varied in quality, but Ollabelle is one of the best of the ilk. They have a sensitivity to the original arrangements of the songs, but are not afraid to apply their own ingredients to the mix, such as bridging the gap between the old and the contemporary by drawing on some 1960s soul and rock & roll influences. The collective nature of the group also makes it more interesting, with the various members' influences coming together in intriguing ways. The success of the group so far in attracting the attention of major record labels also was apparently a surprise to the group members, who all had their own independent musical careers. But in the wake of their release, Ollabelle has begun touring together.

Our grade for sound quality is an A minus. The mix and clarity are commendable, and the CD's sonic treatments subtly enhance the mood of the album. The dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft passages, while better than many contemporary pop releases, is still impaired somewhat by volume compression.

It's good that there is a renewed interest in the traditional folk music that was the inspiration to so much that followed it, from country to rock and roll. I think it's even better that younger performers are not only drawing on the music, but applying their own creativity to come up with new sounds, and not just another revival of old styles.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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