Riverside Battle Songs

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Ollabelle's second album, Riverside Battle Songs, arrives on the heels of 2004's self-titled debut, one of the more celebrated Americana releases of the new millennium. That album combined classic gospel material with T-Bone Burnett's sparkling production and a fresh vocal approach featuring five gifted singers who could shine both individually and collectively. Where the debut album was skewed toward traditional songs with a smattering of originals, Riverside Battle Songs reverses the ratio. Nine of the 13 songs are Ollabelle originals. The traditional songs fare best here. Namesake Ola Belle Reed's "High on a Mountain" is given a spirited reading, while the familiar spiritual "Down by the Riverside" is updated with ambient touches that recall Daniel Lanois' production work. The Appalachian gospel song "Gone Today" arrives via spine-tingling a cappella singing, departs via a fiddle and Dobro hoedown, and is one of the album's highlights. The originals are more problematic. The mournful "Everything Is Broken" is a starkly lovely ballad, while "Troubles of the World" offers an impressive and surprising raga-tinged coda on what is otherwise a standard gospel song. However, producer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell adds some too-familiar alt-country pedal steel work on "Heaven's Pearls" and "Blue Northern Lights," songs that are certainly pretty, but which overstay their welcome. More disturbingly, the five members of Ollabelle simply sound too polite and well-mannered for songs that are intended to convey spiritual desperation and heavenly joy. It's a charge that could have been leveled at the debut album, but the universally strong material offset the lack of funk and fire. But Riverside Battle Songs, with slightly weaker material, is The Gospel According to NPR and PBS, and as such it will appeal mostly to fans who like their fire and brimstone diluted with a strong dose of slick professionalism and urbane refinement. Undeniably well crafted and well sung, and occasionally moving, Riverside Battle Songs is nevertheless something of a disappointment.

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