Pearls, Orpheum Bell's latest album, sounds like it's coming through a phonograph, all sepia-toned and ghostly. This is due in part to the band's old-time mix of country and bluegrass with a few other instruments thrown in--accordion, trumpet, saw, clarinet--that give it a unique gypsy-tinged flavor. But it's the voices and the lyrics that give it that time-capsule quality. The lead female vocalist, Merrill Hodnefield, sounds as if her maple syrup voice were plucked from the past. A slight nasally quality gives it a filtered sound, like it's traveled through a mile of Spanish moss before reaching your ears. With his gravelly voice, front man Aaron Klein channels Tom Waits, and his lyrics are a deft blend of sweet-dark imagery: "the blind girls dance crooked/and the pier's broken free/the tree's full of perfume/and it won't let me be." Songs are peppered with things like lockets and gambling pistols--nary a cell phone in sight.
But live, the band has a bewitching energy. They channel all of their old-timey vibes into a performance that's earthy and vibrant and makes you feel like you're witnessing--and simultaneously part of--an amazing artistic endeavor. For starters, they play a bewildering number of instruments. I counted something like twenty-three when I saw them at the Ark last fall: guitars, violins, mandolin, ukulele, dobro, double bass, saw, accordion, organ, trumpet, banjo... And a Stroh violin, which Klein explains was an 1899 invention that attached a horn to a violin skeleton for amplification. The technology was obsolete shortly after it was invented, making it a perfect instrument for a band that resurrects old forms.
Multiinstrumentalist Michael Billmire, who's responsible for most of the non-bluegrass instruments, played everything from a child-size organ to a trumpet with its end submerged in a bowl of water. The latter gave certain songs a 1940s jazzy feel, showcasing the band's ability to dip in and out of various genres without losing itself. But the instruments aren't just spectacle--each one is needed for
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