Ollabelle: “Neon Blue Bird”

Amy Helm happens to be the daughter of one of American music’s most iconic drummers– Levon‘s his name– so it’s probably no great surprise that her band, Ollabelle, has a conception of Americana that’s wide enough to include R&B rhythms and shimmering soul grooves. What is surprising is how long it took them to discover it. Ollabelle started out as a gospel group, but by the time they released their first couple of albums their sound had fallen prey to an all-too-common interpretation of American roots music that’s part twang and part twee– a folksy sound with too little grit to be really rustic. Neon Blue Bird re-aligns this band in a major way. It’s a corker of a record, by far their best and one of the best American music releases of the year.

In fact, it plays like a rather lovely, low-key celebration of all the best things about American music– twangy guitars, soulful gospel harmonies, and did I mention the beats? The scope of the thing is modest and the attitude entirely unassuming, so at first it plays simply like a quaint, old-fashioned Ollabelle album, albeit a very good one. Actually, the first song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” plays like a quaint, old-fashioned song by The Band– and yes, a very good one, at that. The next one, “One More Time,” is a sweetly shuffling country/folk song with a jaunty piano and some rich harmonies.

Around the time “Be Your Woman” comes around, though, you begin to realize just how deep these guy roll, how many gifts they possess but almost never flaunt. For starters, the song rocks– not conventionally, perhaps, but certainly enough to count as a real barn-burner. On top of that, this band is blessed with several very good singers, and their gospel roots come into play here in a big way, with what sounds like the whole group coming in at key moments. (The chugging rhythm and mixed harmonies remind me, oddly enough, of Fleetwood Mac– perhaps not the impression they’re trying to make, but it’s a killer song no matter how you want to slice it.) On top of all of that, the group has developed a real ear for what sounds good– not just for songwriting, but for creating a rich, multi-layered, full-bodied sound that’s pretty far removed from the thinner, folksier stuff they were doing early on.

“Wait for the Sun” splits the difference between soul balladry and soft rock– but it’s the harmonies that make it. I tell you, the Fleet Foxes crew would kill for something so heavenly. The best thing here, though, is “Brotherly Love,” a straight-up, organ-drenched soul groove with a wickedly streetwise, socially conscious lyric that skewers the very notion of human goodwill or charity as a cure for society’s ills, advising in its righteous chorus to “aim a little higher than brotherly love.” The song finds easy company in some of the prime work of Wonder and Gaye– not bad for a group of white folks.

Ollabelle seamlessly integrates covers and reconfigured traditional songs with their own work, including a spirited version of Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.” That song suggests that they are in full possession not only of good taste but of their own voice, qualities that come into stark display on a pair of the traditional numbers. They pick a British folk song, ironically enough– “The Butcher Boy”– and do a reading that’s marvelous in its deft balance of drama and restraint; the story unfolds patiently, with subtle coloring in the background and an arrangement that suggests just a hint of the theatrical, but not enough to make it anything less palpable than a very fine folk song. Almost as startling and just as effective is a radically re-interpreted “Swanee River,” which closes the album; on his fine new album Let Them Talk Hugh Laurie does this one as a rave-up, but here it’s a benediction, tranquil and quiet and just a bit unsettling.

It’s a beautiful record from top to bottom, steeped in good taste but also more than willing to step out on a limb; what it suggests, to this listener, is that Ollabelle has come into their own and is speaking in their own voice like never before. Neon Blue Bird reveals that they have plenty to say, and I plan on listening closely from here on out.

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