Surrealist whispers from the past
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
a collection of mutes. She carries Orpheum Bell's music sufficiently far over the boundaries of the ordinary that it begins to take on a hypnotic, parallel-universe effect.
There's a collection of younger artists who take the surrealist rather than the sunny side of 1920s culture as a point of departure, but Orpheum Bell goes beyond most of them. If you happen to have seen Guy Maddin's entirely individual take on the visual language of European silent films, you might think of Orpheum Bell as something like the musical equivalent. This local band turned out a nearly full house of young people at one of the Ark's free Take a Chance Tuesday concerts in September, and when young people pay attention to something quiet, everybody would do well to take notice. Orpheum Bell has shows lined up at the Belmont in Hamtramck and the Cadieux Cafe in Detroit hip spots that have launched a lasting career or two. The band plays the Old Town on Sunday, November 4.
[Review published November 2007]