Reunited but with a new sound
In the winter after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a small group of musicians began gathering on Sunday evenings at a bar on New York's Lower East Side to sing gospel songs, their need for reassurance and their love of roots music intersecting in the old hymns. When the sextet, now called Ollabelle, decided to record those hymns, the music struck a chord with others as well.
Levon Helm, the father of one of the singers, Amy Helm, played drums on two of the songs. T-Bone Burnett signed on as executive producer and released the album, "Ollabelle," in 2004. Alison Krauss added Ollabelle to her tour that year. Jake Guralnick, son of music writer Peter Guralnick, became the band's manager. And Larry Campbell, Bob Dylan's music director, produced Ollabelle's sophomore album, 2006's "Riverside Battle Songs." All of them, it seemed, were responding to the soothing timelessness of the backwoods music.
Now, seven years after that debut release, it's a different Ollabelle. Five of the original members are still on board, but their new album, "Neon Blue Bird," is dominated not by comforting gospel but by edgy blues.
"A lot of people in this band gravitate toward edgier stuff, and that came out on this record," says mandolinist Amy Helm. "The first record was the result of a handful of informal jam sessions at a bar when we weren't really a band at all. It was only after the album got released that we became a real band. This record is more a reflection of people who rode around in a van for seven years and developed a chemistry."
"That edge was always there," says keyboardist Glenn Patscha, "but working with producers, some of the band's instincts were tamed. . . . What I'm most proud of on this record is you hear each person's character coming through, that edginess."
The economic recession also had something to do with the band's different mood. "Neon Blue Bird" was made without the help of a label, and raising money was a struggle. When borrowed funds ran out, the band asked Levon Helm for studio time to be paid for later. To design and manufacture the album, a campaign was launched to raise $14,000 from fans.
Meanwhile, everyone in the band was trying to balance outside gigs. Amy Helm and bassist Byron Isaacs still play with Levon's band; Patscha plays with Sheryl Crow; drummer Tony Leone plays with Shooter Jennings; and guitarist Fiona McBain has revived her solo career. In other words, Ollabelle was living out the economic juggling act that many American families have experienced the past three years, and that tension is reflected in its music.
"This record was definitely influenced by the process," Patscha says. "We had to get a bank loan like any other small business. In the back of everyone's mind, we didn't know how long we could keep this going, and that focus on the moment makes for interesting music.
"There was one eight-month gap during 2009-2010 when we didn't get together at all. When we finally did, I heard a new quality in the music, of people not trying to sound good but going for something meaningful beyond the notes."
When Patscha sings about a newly dug grave in "Dirt Floor," there's nothing about his vocals nor the bristling layers of guitars, mandolin and fiddle that softens the inevitability of our ultimate destination. Isaacs sings "Brotherly Love" over a fattened, ominous R&B groove, and, after pointing out how the "rich man's riding on the poor man," he concludes, "Don't tell me about brotherly love." When Helm belts out the traditional blues song "Be Your Woman," she doesn't coo seductively but is openly confrontational.
Patscha and Isaacs heightened the unsettled feeling on several songs by creating a bed of eerie sound effects. McBain's vocal on the old British murder ballad "Butcher Boy," for example, is made even more disturbing by the wavering, seething, barely audible synths and guitars in the background. Stephen Foster's "Swanee River," is stripped of its original racist lyrics to become a reverie of homesickness. The arrangement's ghostliness is reinforced by the same background murmurings.
"I'm particularly proud of 'Butcher Boy,' " Patscha says. "We literally wanted to make that a cinematic experience musically. It was electronica without sounding like electronica, because it sounds so human. The effects don't get in the way, because the intention is never to dress things up."
America may never again be as innocent as it was on Sept. 10, 2001, or feel as united as it did on Sept. 12, 2001. Now we are in a different era, and Ollabelle has made an album reflective of the change.
"We take these simple songs like 'Swanee River,' and make them even simpler," Patscha says. "The person in that song is missing home, but it's a home they'll never get back to."
--Geoffrey Himes, Oct. 14, 2011