Orpheum Bell 2012
Orpheum Bell has been kicking around Ann Arbor since 2005, playing its distinctly Eastern European folk, yet genre-challenging, sound. Founded by Aaron Klein and Serge van der Voo, the only remaining members of the original group, the band has carved a niche by mixing completely different styles of music and making it work--all the while playing an array of truly unusual instruments. Klein, the band's principal lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist, and van der Voo, double bassist, are joined in the current Orpheum Bell lineup by multi-instrumentalist Michael Billmire and two newcomers, Henrik Karapetyan on violins and Katie Lee on vocals, and a variety of string and percussion instruments. And, by the way, all members contribute some singing.
The quintet recently recorded a third album, The Old Sisters' Home, released locally in December 2011 and nationally on May 8, and they're excited to bring their new music to the Ark on June 23, where they'll play a double bill with Chicago's Eastern Blok. While the new album contains much of Orpheum Bell's distinctive Eastern sound, much has changed, too. Perhaps the most noticeable difference from the band's two prior albums--2007's Pretty as You and 2009's Pearls--is the female vocalist. Lee replaces Merrill Hodnefield-which is no easy task. Fortunately, instead of trying to imitate Hodnefield, Lee quickly found her own voice. Guest drummer Michael Shimmin plays on most of the ten tracks, while Terry Kimura adds trombone and Sipkje Pesnichak adds oboe and French horn on select numbers. Billmire has added xylophone to his lengthy repertoire of instruments, which include accordion, mandolin, pump organ, trumpet, shepherd harp, and glockenspiel.
According to van der Voo, The Old Sisters' Home is Orpheum Bell's most collaborative effort to date. After recording Pretty as You in van der Voo's living room and Pearls digitally in a studio, the band was ready to spend more time and resources to flush out a deeper, warmer resonance closer to its live sound. One way this was
achieved was by using vintage ribbon mikes. Another way was by spending more money, encouraged by package donations made through Kickstarter.com.
The album opens with "Poor Laetitia," which features Klein's gruff vocals and could fit undetected into Tom Waits's catalog. While Orpheum Bell's first two albums had an Americana/country-ish undertone, The Old Sisters' Home is definitely more jazz-oriented. In fact, not until "Family Pictures," the album's fifth song, does their familiar blend of Eastern and American roots surface. Jennie Knaggs, a former Kentucky yodeling contest winner who lends backing vocals on three tracks, even adds some yodeling to that number. The album also includes three instrumentals and one song sung in Russian (both Klein and Karapetyan are fluent). Overall, The Old Sisters' Home has that feel of an album from a band in the right spot--one that's matured, knows its influences, and is moving forward confidently.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]