Ollabelle

If you’re like me, your Christmas shopping is best preserved for those special, quiet moments on Christmas Eve, when not a creature is stirring — because the they’re all caught in traffic at the Mall. But this gift recommendation is a pretty easy hit, especially for the music lover on your Christmas list.

My own taste in music is fairly broad — from jazz to classical, an occasional country song, New Age and electronic, and of course raucous rock. There is something in the sound of a Les Paul played at obscene volume through Marshall amps which causes a near euphoric rush of some beneficial neurotransmitter from deep in my limbic system. Most of my music is now converted to digital MP3s, and a lot of different iTunes playlists make for a good variety. Nevertheless, there are a few things as exciting as discovering a new group, or an old group with which I am unfamiliar.

Recently I had such an opportunity. While browsing a less-frequented but excellent blog from my neck of the woods, Nothwestern Winds, I picked up a recommendation for the group Ollabelle, and their most recent CD, Riverside Battle Songs. A quick trip to the iTunes store, a quick listen to a few cuts, and I was sold — hook, line and sinker. This is one of the most interesting and enjoyable groups I have heard in many years.

Ollabelle was formed as a side project by a group of six New York-based singer-songwriters who came together to play informally at the Sunday night gospel show of the 9C club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each an accomplished musician and vocalist in their own right, with varied backgrounds in folk, jazz, blues, and session work, they coalesced into a remarkable unit with complex vocal harmonies and extraordinary, intricate instrumental interplay. Their music is somewhat difficult to categorize, with strains of folk, bluegrass, Celtic, jazz, gospel, and rock.

It represents something of a revival of early Negro spiritual and gospel traditions, but does so in a surprisingly modern and pleasantly unpredictable style. What starts out as a seemingly prosaic folk ballad, a cappella in a major key, metamorphizes seamlessly into a minor, then a blues key, accented by Dobro or rich, evocative pedal steel background which makes the pseudo-orchestral synthesizer fills of most modern music sound pathetic and banal by comparison. It is alternatively rich and soulful or upbeat and joyful music. If this music doesn’t set your toes to tappin’, you either have no legs or have no soul.

So there’s still plenty of shopping time to grab this CD for the music-lover on your shopping list. And while you’re at it, grab a copy for yourself.

You won’t regret it.

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