On their Facebook page, recently formed San Francisco-based band Old Belle claims that even though they don’t hail from Kentucky’s coal country and weren’t formed during the folk boom of the 1960s, their music is still “unapologetically folk.” Judging from the eleven songs on their debut, self-titled album, that claim is most certainly true. Old Belle has a stripped down, bouncy old time feel, and has provided listeners with a cheerful and enjoyable set of music on their new release.
Nine of the album’s numbers are band originals, and although they are new songs, they were definitely written with an ear toward the music of the early 20th century. Grand Ol’ Time is a fun song that hearkens to the Prohibition era, and finds the singer and her friends declaring that despite laws against it, they’re still going to find some liquor and have a good night. It’s not hard to imagine this song being sung in 1920s speakeasy. Beggin’ has some fine, old-time influenced instrumental solos. It follows the classic story of the singer leaving on a train to find work, and hoping there will still be love waiting for them when they return.
Roam also has a traditional, familiar story and looks back to a historic time period. It tells the story of a family escaping a Dust Bowl farm and searching for hope in California. The bouncy rhythm that’s present on most of the album is here too, but it’s a little more wistful and poignant. The group turns more toward the singer-songwriter folk style on Green Grass, with its peaceful sound and story of a woman who is longing for the one who once loved her. There’s a touch of bluegrass on the banjo-guided opening track, Arizona, which features guest fiddling from Matthias McIntire.
Two of the songs are the band’s takes on old standards, usually associated with the Carter Family, which any fan of traditional music should know. Bury Me Beneath the Willow is performed quite similarly to most other versions, though perhaps a bit faster. It has a nice mandolin opening and is well suited to lead vocalist Tonya Newstetter’s voice. Will the Circle Be Unbroken is also arranged in a straightforward manner, with the spotlight on the vocals.
Though a new group, Old Belle has a great grasp on the old-time sound. Mike Gubman’s bass playing particularly stands out throughout the recording, setting down a solid, traditional-sounding rhythm. The music made by Gubman, Newstetter (guitar and vocals), Ashley Conrad (mandolin), and Will Sprecher (banjo and vocals, who has since departed the group) is sure to fit in well with the western folk and old-time scene.