|© Kirsten Elling|
by James M. Manheim
Orpheum Bell bills its music as "country and eastern," and indeed some of it has old-time country or Gypsy flavors. But that doesn't quite give you the right idea. This band's songs are rarely zippy, even when it's playing a fiddle tune or an accordion stomp. Instead, Orpheum Bell sets a dreamy, attenuated mood in which snatches of music seem to curl upward into the shadows of a dimly lit room. This is one of those bands that like to make up their own press quotes, and it describes itself thus: "Some kind of von Trapp Family pounding out raw country and Gypsy waltzes at the last bar on the outskirts of town."
Vocalist Aaron Klein, who also writes most of the group's slightly mysterious songs, takes his inspiration from Tom Waits, one of the surprising number of fifty-somethings who seem to be influencing a lot of twenty-somethings these days. But he draws on the quieter Tom Waits of the Junkyard Orchestra rather than the roaring rhythm and blues. His words weave in and out of a collection of instruments that may include, as needed, accordion, banjo, guitar, fiddle, clarinet, saw, and Autoharp, along with percussion and bass. There's a shimmering, flickering effect to the whole that draws you in by turning down the temperature rather than heating things up.
As important as Klein to the overall sound are the contributions of fiddler and vocalist Merrill Hodnefield. She plays the oddest among Orpheum Bell's collection of instruments. The band's MySpace page features an image it has used as a logo: the guts of a violin, with a big metal horn sticking out of one side instead of a wooden sound box. This is the Stroh violin, otherwise known as the violinophone (Waits has also used it occasionally), an attempt from the premicrophone days to amplify a violin's sound. Its keening tone is one of several unusual violin sounds offered by Hodnefield, who also seems to have
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