Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Orphan Brigade: Soundtrack to a Ghost Story : Self-Released

Maybe a little prompting was required to get this record off the bottom of the pile, but sometimes you are forever grateful for that helping hand and hopefully the outpouring from the next few paragraphs will act as a further stimulus for others to engage. Quite simply this record is a stunning presentation of a project by three exceedingly talented songwriters to extract creative gold from an intriguing story, chain of events and an interesting slice of American history. The three architects are two Americans: Nielson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, and a Brit in the guise of Northern Irishman Ben Glover. The name is taken from that given to a group of Civil War fighters and the scene is based around the haunted Octagon Hall in Kentucky. The result is a magnificent fourteen track backdrop to a string of accomplished folk songs, gloriously structured in the American roots tradition and adding extraordinary value to the precious listening time of the cultured ear. 

Before launching into the album’s deep end, attention must be drawn to the CD liner notes which contain the most enlightening overview to a record read in ages. Subjects such as madness and soul reside alongside phrases like ‘Pink Floyd on moonshine’. These notes are no mere superficial press release copy, in fact more of a splendid independent analysis. This record can be enjoyed solely on its musical merits but you are missing so much by not delving into the background prose, meaning and extended reading. If anything it takes the soul of Tom Russell’s masterpiece THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE and gives it a practical edge without losing the desired impact.

Ben Glover will be the pathway into The Orphan Brigade for many UK and Ireland listeners due to his back catalogue and most recent associations, both on record and live, with Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier. Gretchen does make a fleeting vocal appearance on the record alongside Kim Richey, another acclaimed American singer-songwriter with a UK presence. Ben also worked with Nielson on his most recent record ATLANTIC and the Nashville based producer has also undertaken production duties on this album. However these are just facts, when compared to the true wealth revealed from the output of this project.

Ben in Birmingham 
Ben, Nielson and Josh spent considerable time in Octagon Hall, Franklin Kentucky experiencing the myth and atmosphere of what is considered one of America’s most haunted locations. The setting for the album is mainly around the Civil War when the building played a prominent role. Song after song has emerged following a total absorption of the history, characters and stories. This is pure folklore immortalised in song and music and a major beneficiary from the artistic talents of the three protagonists. In celebrated roots tradition there is a heavy leaning towards authentic instrumentation and in one instance, ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’, the guys felt the need to incorporate a traditional song. This fetching Irish tale tells of the innocence of immigrants having their first experience of the new land when being told to fight for one side versus another, without any understanding or relevance.

Like all essential albums, the track order is a vital component with the guys electing to start with a short musical prelude titled ‘Octagon Hall’, and end with the ultimate tribute to the band of soldiers, ‘The Orphans’, responsible for giving the collaboration its name. Within the boundaries of these two markers are a rich set of mainly original tunes, with the word ‘tune’ being taken literally in ‘Whistling Walk’. As it explicitly says in the title, this is a whistling piece and is inspired by slaves being forced to participate in that act to prove they were not eating the food they were transporting around the plantation. To say song-wise the album peaks in tracks two and three is misleading, but ‘Pale Horse’ and ‘Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriett)’ continue to hit enormous heights after many listens. The first kicks in with a wonderful atmospheric feeling straight after the prelude. The second introduces one of the record’s many characters and presents Ben at his rootsy best. At this point he teams up with Kim Richey and Heather Donegan to share the vocals with the trio joined by Gretchen Peters on ‘I’ve Seen the Elephant’.

Ben in Shrewsbury
As well as the haunted connotations, the historical context of the Civil War is rife throughout the record and best exemplified through ‘We Were Marching on Christmas Day’ and the Josh Britt sung song from the Union perspective ‘Good Old Flag’.  Apart from the obvious concept and theme laden aspects of the album, the songs are damn good stand alone productions, configured to reach out from an entrenched fan base. If you fancy a touch of vocal diversification mid album, Kim Richey takes sole lead on ‘The Story You Tell Yourself’, while there is a heavily collaborated vocal chant feel to ‘Cursed Be the Wanderer’, majorly influenced by the group folk style of the British Isles. Not to leave Nielson out of the vocal appreciation, he takes over for the ballad ‘Last June Light’ and the more upbeat and dramatic anthem ‘Sweetheart’. Further characters emerge in the delightfully sung duet ‘Goodnight Mary’, with Nielson and Kim in vocal control.

Each listen to this album offers a  different facet, whether vocally, musically or a storyline twist to consider. Praise cannot be lavished any higher for the outcome of Josh, Ben and Nielson’s project and while the name The Orphan Brigade is not presently a household one, with any justice it should be. This is folk, roots and Americana music at its very best; educating, informing and inspiring all those who open their senses and minds to the depth of Soundtrack to a Ghost Story.

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