The Orphan Brigade. Heart Of The Cave. At The Helm Records

ath201317_cover_artTwo years ago Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Josh Britt got together to record The Orphan Brigade – Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, an album recorded in a “haunted” antebellum mansion on a civil war battle site. Touring the album in Europe they landed in Osimo, Italy, a town with its own ghostly past and a warren of ancient caves under its streets to boot. Taken by the place they returned for a ten day stay later and recorded this album in those caves with Glover explaining, “I had a profound sense that we were stepping into the past, into a mysterious and ancient world.” As on the previous album the trio enlist assistance (Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Kris & Heather Donegan, Dan Mitchell, Dean Marold, Will Kimbrough, Natalie Schabs, Eamon McLoughlin, Audrey Spillman and Kira Small) and while many of the songs relate directly to the history and myths of Osimo they retain their distinctly American sound that resonated throughout the earlier album. Mandolin and softly strummed guitars predominate although there are strings and horns and some wonderful vocal arrangements.

Although it opens with a brace of spritely numbers the album overall is dark and reflective.   The opening Pile Of Bones is a primeval workout, a chant over scrubbed instruments and a tribal thump as a massed chorus sings, “we ain’t leaving but a pile of bones” An invitation to reflect on our mortality and not dissimilar to Patti Smith’s Ghost Dance. Town Of A Hundred Churches is resolutely set in the Italian town they’re in but it swings with a fine mid western breeze and, as the notes state, could as easily have been written about Nashville. Similarly their song about a 17th century local mystic who could levitate, Flying Joe, is given a fine string band gospel arrangement. There’s a return to a primeval stomp on Alchemy but the remainder of the album is of a darker hue.

Osimo (Come To Life) has the pace of a funeral procession and is suffused with images of death being just a gateway to a new life with its final refrain a nod to the many carvings in the walls of the caves. Meanwhile Pain Is Gone, a hushed affair sung over a simple acoustic guitar for the most part, again delves into the mysteries of death. This flirtation with mortality might be partly explained by the fact that as the band were recording the album Italy suffered several earthquakes with loss of life. This may have informed the pair of songs, The Birds Are Silent and The Bells Are Ringing, that sit at the centre, the former has the earth shaking and urgent descriptions of people clawing at ruins looking for survivors in a chilling song that rattles along like a south western bandit ballad full of cinematic drama. The Bells Are Ringing, by contrast, is a firm rejoinder to celebrate the destructive power of nature and is given a rapturous delivery.

The album closes with four powerful songs. Sweet Cecilia is moored firmly in that dark Americana vein populated by ghosts and dead lovers while Meet Me in The Shadows is a dolorous affair, ghostly voices singing from Stygian depths.  That glimmer of hope that death is the not the end is revisited on There’s A Light That Never Goes Out, the one song here that sounds truly cavernous with the piano and percussion reverberating amidst ominous sound effects with the ghost of Leonard Cohen hovering somewhere nearby. Donna Sacra, with a wordless female voice, is a rapture of sorts. A close to the album emphasised by the final sound snippet of an Italian train service announcement as the band come back to the surface.

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Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records

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Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).

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The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

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And just because it’s Halloween