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Olabelle

Riverside Battle Songs – 2006 (Verve Forecast)

Reviewed by Brian Baker

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A good many significant changes have occurred in Ollabelle's world since their astonishing, acclaimed 2004 self-titled debut, produced by T-Bone Burnett. Structurally, Ollabelle has been pared down to a quintet with the exit of guitarist Jimi Zhivago, whose role was absorbed by vocalist Fiona McBain. Administratively, the band changed labels. Musically, Ollabelle has experienced the greatest shift.

Before recording their debut, Ollabelle was more a loose collective of musicians than an actual band, having coalesced from rotating and disparate members assembled for regular gospel night shows at 9C, a popular East Village folk club in New York. By the time they recorded their debut, Ollabelle still played primarily covers of old traditional bluegrass, folk and gospel tunes along with a handful of originals, and that's what they took into the studio. Here, Ollabelle has reversed the ratio, with a handful of traditional covers and a majority of like-minded originals. The other significant change is in the band's sonics, as they've moved away from the ambient dub gospel texturalism woven into their debut in favor of a more straightforward bluegrass/folk/blues approach, courtesy of producer/longtime Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell. Perhaps the biggest change for Ollabelle is the fact that the collective has transformed into an actual band, touring, writing and recording as a group with a unified focus.

The years of performing traditional material has clearly paid off for Ollabelle, as the originals stand shoulder to shoulder stylistically with the cover material the band has done since their inception. The gospel shimmer of "Heaven's Pearls," the bluesy swing of "Fall Back" and "Troubles of the World," the folk lilt of "Dream the Fall" and the bluegrass/gospel swell of "Gone Today" all exhibit the same authenticity and reverence as the songs that Ollabelle has chosen from history's catalog, making this a decidedly different but equally satisfying Ollabelle album.