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OLLABELLE (DMZ/Columbia) • Ollabelle

In her fascinating book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty & Meaning in American Popular Music, author Martha Bayles maintains that the further American pop strays from its roots in the Afro-American church, the worse it gets. Whether you buy her theory or not, there is no doubt that Ollabelle's self-titled debut would make her top ten list. These six white musicians came together in New York City to make a record of largely Gospel and Spiritual cover tunes, while adding enough modern harmonic and sonic touches to keep the proceedings from turning into a retro-fest, or museum piece.

The project is billed as a band of six equals, but vocalist Amy Helm's lineage as daughter of The Band's Levon Helm has helped her to emerge as something of a public focal point, if not the only musical one. In fact, though Ollabelle sounds almost nothing like her father's outfit, it recalls certain things about that legendary group. All six members--Helm, Fiona McBain, Tony Leone, Glenn Patscha, Byron Isaacs, and Jim Zhivago--sing, with the ensemble singing taking precedence over the glorification of the soloist; it is the palpable joy they take in singing together that offers the music's primary pleasure. By the time they get through raising their a cappella (save for Leone's drums and tambourine) voices on the opener, "Before This Time," you will either be a convert or not.

Tunes like "Jesus on the Mainline" and "John the Revelator" seem to have been recently rediscovered by any number of savvy musicians from Chris Thomas King to Jack White. To these Ollabelle adds their distinct touch through Zhivago's atmospheric slide and the occasional Downtown dissonance of Patscha's piano. Like The Band, Ollabelle has forged a sound that allows for individual voices, without losing the group identity. Come to think of it, this is common to many great bands: The Beatles, CSNY, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, etc. Their debut record is a haunting gem, and if Ollabelle can write their own music to match the strength of their sound, they could find a place among these legends.
• Michael Ross

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