Neon Blue Bird
Ollabelle (Thirty Tigers, 2011)
On the first track of the new Ollabelle album, a clavinet, sounding like an electrified mouth harp, hacks out a riff that echoes “Rag Mama Rag” by The Band. It’s a promising reference point until you realize that’s Amy Helm singing the lead, and her father, Levon, was the main voice of The Band.
So Ollabelle’s connection to the pre-history of American popular music—the roots in gospel, hillbilly, and blues—is part genetic. But it is also a matter of choice. They named themselves after North Carolina old-time singer, songwriter, and banjo player Ollabelle Reed (check “High on a Mountain”) and began playing gospel music in a Greenwich Village bar on Sunday nights in the months after 9/11 when, as bassist Byron Isaacs has put it, “Everyone was really sick of irony.” Ollabelle connected with the original feeling of the old hymns and spirituals, if not with the doctrines that framed them, and soon they were writing their own songs in a similar vein.
On this, the group’s third album, originals dominate. There are two decidedly secular traditional tunes. The first, “Be Your Woman,” is an erotic classic that features a spooky New Orleans drum beat and a blues harmonica. The old English death ballad “Butcher Boy” is sung with appropriate gravity against sparse piano and, in the distance, distorted guitar and a military snare.
But the band wrote their own gospel songs. In “Brotherly Love” the singer tells of “Cain and Abel, the very first brothers that ever was” and urges us to “aim higher” than a fraternity founded on mere kinship. Another, “Record Needle,” fuses longings both sexual and spiritual into a compound that is positively sacramental.
Ollabelle is an American band of this American moment. In the digital house of mirrors that is our contemporary culture, they are intent on digging down and connecting with what one of their songs calls “the dirt floor” beneath our feet, which will also someday be our bed.