The Old Sisters’ Home
These days, it’s no surprise to find a musician influenced heavily by Tom Waits. It’s not particularly unusual to find a musician who imitates Waits’s voice, either, though it’s usually done tongue in cheek, because, seriously, we all know that Waits is not exactly a “good” singer, no matter how awesome he sounds. Orpheum Bell‘s lead singer and primary songwriter Aaron Klein, however, has a voice that is an absolute dead ringer for Waits, particularly on the leadoff heavy, stomping march “Poor Laetitia.” And with his Ukrainian origins providing a healthy dose of the same Eastern music that has made up a bulk of the (for lack of a better word) “weird” material from Waits, you have a project that could easily be mistaken for identity-less copycatting.
Fortunately, that’s not the case with The Old Sisters’ Home. For one thing, Orpheum Bell’s musical influences are as diverse as the backgrounds of the musicians (members are from Ukraine, Holland, Armenia, Ohio, and Michigan). Gypsy jazz, country, and swing are the lowest hanging fruit in their musical stable. And Klein is backed up by the sweet voices of Katie Lee and guests like Jennie Knaggs to keep things from getting too heavy and dark. Such textural extremes are found throughout the album; in fact, the band’s main strength seems to be their excellent control of divergent textures. Violin against xylaphone, trumpet against guitar, accordion against banjo. For a band that hasn’t made much use of percussion in the past (this, their third album, is the first with a drum kit), the album is exceptionally rhythmic.
Musically, everything on the album is interesting, and the astonishing depth is revealed in repeated listening. But the highlights are with the title track, a showcase for violinist Henrik Karapatyan; “Poor Laetitia”; the eastern Europe-meets-bluegrass mashup “Family Pictures”; the duet “Chain Stitched Heart” (possibly the most purely cheerful sounding song on the record); and the finale “Khadaya Ptitsa” (“Skinny Bird”). The lyrics (which are in Russian) to “Skinny Bird” again call to mind the Waits influence to close out the record, with a chorus that alludes to a children’s rhyme set to a background that’s nearly as frenetic as a Balkan brass band:
Skinny bird, fly away home
Skinny bird, the river’s close at hand
Skinny bird, I’m with you
I’m with you, I’m with you
The album was released digitally late in 2011; it is getting a very nice CD package and rerelease today.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)