OLLABELLE "Riverside Battle Songs" Verve Forecast

Friday, August 11, 2006

OLLABELLE"Riverside Battle Songs"Verve Forecast

MUSICIANS ARE ALWAYS wise to soak up traditional sources when they start their careers, but sooner or later it's time to transform those materials into one's own voice. That's what the five members of Ollabelle have done on their second album, "Riverside Battle Songs." The group's 2004 debut featured more traditional gospel hymns than originals, but that balance is reversed on the new disc.

The transition is handled gracefully, because the young songwriters imitate the strong melodies and parable-like language of their pre-World War II role models. When keyboardist Glenn Patscha sings of tramping through the snow toward a possible lover on "Blue Northern Lights," the vivid contrast between the "cold prairie wind stinging your ears" and the warm voice on the other end of the phone evokes a questing journey as effectively as any ancient hymn. A similar quest is suggested when mandolinist Amy Helm (yes, Levon's daughter) and bassist Byron Isaacs sing of following a "Northern Star."

There's a political as well as religious subtext to these traveling songs, for Helm sings of journeying past burning oil fields and guitarist Fiona McBain sings, on "Dream the Fall," of passing streets full of wooden caskets. The social, spiritual and personal redemption promised at the end of the road is represented by the five musicians' glorious vocal harmonies, the mostly acoustic arrangements and the sparkling production and picking by Bob Dylan's longtime guitarist Larry Campbell.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Thursday at Iota.

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