DETROIT FREE PRESS (Martin Bandyke) October 25, 2009
The Ann Arbor-based sextet Orpheum Bell delivers an intriguing blend of Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz and song stylings reminiscent of "Rain Dog"-era Tom Waits on "Pearls" (****, self-released), the group's exquisitely played -- and packaged -- second release. Sporting letter-pressed artwork that looks like something out of the Civil War period, the music also features instrumentation from another era, with hurdy-gurdy, shepherd harp, ukuleles and even a musical saw coming into play. Guitarist Aaron Klein sings with the Waits-ian growl, while violinist Merrill Hodnefield provides a nice contrast with her gentler, more lilting vocals.
Orpheum Bell rings the strongest on the ambitious "Hard Money Suite," which closes with the sensational "New Hearse for Hastings," delving into dark subject matter with relish. ...
ANNARBOR.COM (Bob Needham) "ORPHEUM BELL'S 'PEARLS' A TRUE GEM" December 1, 2009
The concept of a present-day band using strictly acoustic instruments to achieve an old-timey sound isn't exactly common, but it's not unique, either. Yet Ann Arbor-based Orpheum Bell achieves something unique on "Pearls," the band's new album: reaching deep into the past yet sounding completely fresh. It's a terrific, fascinating work, and reaffirms the band's reputation as a local treasure — and one that deserves a much wider audience.
The band, which plans a CD release show at The Ark on Friday (details below), combines old sounds with modern sensibilities. Working with acoustic instrumentation, the six core members create a sonic world that's rooted in the past while still feeling current. There are echoes of 1920s jazz and Gypsy melodies worked in; the band describes its music as "country and Eastern" — and as well as being a great hook, that's pretty accurate.
Orpheum Bell consists of Aaron Klein, vocals, banjo, ukuleles, tenor and regulation guitars (he's also the primary songwriter); Annie Crawford, vocals and violin; Laurel Premo, vocals, banjo, dobro, cittern and violin; Merrill Hodnefield, vocals, violin, autoharp and saw; Michael Billmire, accordion, trumpet, soprano trombone, shepherd harp, mandolin and suitcase pump organ; and Serge van der Voo, double bass, foot percussion. Several top-notch guests show up as well, including local luminary Jim Roll, at whose Backseat Productions studio the new album was recorded.
The unusual instruments on that list (plus the near-total absence of drums, which aren't missed at all) start to explain the original sound of Orpheum Bell, but they're just a part of it. The lyrics — evocative yet mysterious, plainspoken yet cryptic — are another part. But mostly, it can't be explained; this is music you need to hear.
"Pearls" — Orpheum Bell's second album ("Pretty as You" came out in 2007) — consists of 11 tracks, three of which are instrumentals. A note from van der Voo describes them as “original songs about money, responsibility and home," and adds, "Some of the material draws from the ledger of Michigan’s difficult times.”
So there's a sadness running through a lot of the music here, and the centerpiece of the album is the three-song "Hard Money Suite." But an underlying sense of hope, sometimes arising from an upbeat melody, balances out the melancholy.
That dichotomy carries through the singing, too — the darkness of Klein's gravelly growl set against the sweet harmonies of the band's three women.
All the songs are strong, but among my favorites are "What If No Sparrow Fell," which opens the album and sets the tone, with a sprightly melody propelling odd, intriguing lyrics. "Goodbye Is the Sweetest Word" is gorgeous, full of bittersweet yearning. And the two more substantial instrumentals, "Sins and Flowers" and "Luna Pier," are rich in feeling and very well played.
Ah, yes, well played. Can't forget that. These folks are excellent musicians, skilled and soulful. And throughout the album they work as an ensemble so well it seems they were meant to do this together.
Finally, even the packaging concept of this album deserves some attention, too. Fully folded out, the cover derives from an old check. The cover was letterpressed with copper plates on recycled paper using a hand-fed cylinder letterpress. And the whole thing only enhances the overall themes and feel of the album.
Ann Arbor has a ridiculous number of very talented performers working somewhere among the blurry genre lines of folk/alt-country/Americana. It can be hard to keep up with them all.
Yet this album still stands out. Orpheum Bell is a remarkable band, and "Pearls" is an amazing album.
THE ANN ARBOR CHRONICLE: Orpheum Bell, Handmade Music (Dave Askins) November 10, 2009
I’m wedged in the corner of a west side Ann Arbor basement amongst a jumble of musical instrument cases. The cases belong to the six musicians of Orpheum Bell. There’s more than one case per musician – they each play an array of different instruments. During a break in the rehearsal, I have to ask: What is that? It’s a Stroh violin, “spelled like the beer,” explains Annie Crawford.
The rehearsal is geared towards a CD release show at The Ark on Dec. 4. I’m soaking in the sounds of the basement practice mostly because of that CD, the group’s second – “Pearls.”
Serge van der Voo had sent along a review copy of the CD to The Chronicle. In a world of MP3 files flung around the Internet, a physical CD is an awfully clunky way to deliver musical data. But when I unfolded the heavy card stock CD cover into its 16-inch total length, I noticed one of the folds was not exactly uniform and regular – not the way you’d expect if a machine had produced several thousand of them.
An even closer examination revealed that the print quality was not the laser-like rigid perfection that a modern digital printer delivers. Which is not to say it was sloppy. On the contrary. It was more like trace-evidence that human hands had played a role. Who were these people with the apparently handcrafted CD case? ...