Orpheum Bell
Musique Noire
Good Hair
Reviewed by Peter Karoly

While both of these albums could be called violin albums, they are … now hold on, WAIT A MINUTE!  Don't give up on that yet.  They may be violin albums, technically, but they are the most unusual violin albums I have ever heard, and I have heard my share of unusual albums. Perhaps it would be better to call them eclectic for many interesting reasons.  I am partial to violins, being mostly Hungarian, and many of the offerings from these two groups have a certain eastern European flavor.  They are not, however, classical or ethnic recordings but … well, let's just get into the heart of the matter.

We will start with Orpheum Bell's Pearls (2009) only because that is the first one I slipped into the player.  After two minutes of listening, I decided this group sounded like two artists that I am quite familiar with but would never put together.  To my ear, it was like listening to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band meets Tom Waits with better diction.  It was quirky but not odd.  If that sounds intriguing, then I recommend you give this group a listen.  The opening track, "What If No Sparrow Fell," included banjo, dobro, violin, and musical saw (I'm a real fan of the musical saw, no kidding!) and had a distinctly authentic American country feel.  Lead singer Aaron Klein sounds like he is quite at home singing sea shanties but, when combined with the melodic tones of Annie Crawford, has a sweet-sour combination that is really quite tasteful.

The 11 tracks on the album conjure up a feeling of traditional and country music, but to classify Orpheum Bell's music as either would be erroneous.  It is a little of both without being either.  If it were either, there would be a fiddle on the album, and it is distinctly the violins of Crawford, Laurel Premo, and Merrill Hodnefield that give the music its unusual quality.  Michael Billmire adds accordion, trumpet, shepherd harp, mandolin, and hurdy-gurdy (another great instrument!), and Serge van der Voo does duty on double bass and percussion. This album was recorded in Ann Arbor, and I am assuming the band members are also from that area.  They have put together a very interesting album that seems to grow on me with repeated listening.

The group Musique Noire, which recorded its debut album Good Hair (2008) around the Livonia area, is made up of Michelle May, Leslie Deshazor Adams, Leah Lucas, Jovia Armstrong, and Mark Sawasky.  Unlike Orpheum Bell, which maintained a clear style throughout each track, Musique Noire seems to change styles with every song.  That made for a very enjoyable listen as the group took me around the musical world in style and structure.

Opening with "Uncle Check's Cha-Cha," the group moves through two original compositions, one sounding very eastern European, before taking a turn at Chick Corea's "La Fiesta."  It's probably a safe bet to say that was not written for violin, but it sounds like it could have been.  At times reminiscent of Jean-Luc Ponty, there are other offerings that certainly are enough to make this gypsy weep. Other original works are wrapped around a jazzy version of "Eleanor Rigby,"  before culminating in the title track.  They may call it "Good Hair," but the 10 tracks on this CD add up to what I call "excellent album."

Musique Noire is a classy group that can move in any musical direction with ease and grace.  Mostly instrumental, Good Hair is one of those rare recordings that can be listened to closely with headphones or put on for an ambient background effect.  I will be doing both because it is a recording that I found extremely enjoyable.

I am one listener who can become easily bored with what is currently being played on the radio, be it AM, FM, or public.  I was not bored with either of these offerings, and they make me want to come back and hear more.  Neither group tries to do too much, and they end up doing just enough to keep things intriguing.  In the old days, I used to buy albums just for the cover art and then try to enjoy the music that came inside.  I'm not sure the covers of either of these albums would have attracted me, yet, if I had heard the music being played in the store, I would have bought them on the spot.  It would be tough to slot either group into a distinct style, but I would recommend listeners keep an open mind and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Peter Karoly is a music enthusiast and an English teacher at Bay City Central High School.

© Peter Karoly, 2009