“Brothers of Bella”: vintage music with a red tinge

Music Review
Brothers of Bella
The Black River Bandit & his Symphonic Rebellion
Digital Album

A recent release by emerging band “The Black River Bandit & his Symphonic Rebellion” will interest fans of vintage music looking for a tinge of red. “Brothers of Bella” is a jazz-opera, featuring a communist protagonist, by the Portland, Oregon, based band. The group’s style mainly draws from early jazz, with flavors of Boogie Woogie, Disco, Flamenco and 50s Rock and Roll.

Musically, “Brothers of Bella” is masterful, with rambunctious piano playing backed by accordion, bass, guitar, and drums. The songs sound as if they were recorded live in a cavernous music hall, with rich, evocative echo. The strongest element is certainly the virtuoso piano work – exhilarating, awe-inspiringly speedy, and infectiously bouncy. Yet, despite the accomplished musicianship with its spot-on technique, the band doesn’t stretch beyond the realm of classic music styles.

“Brothers” is limited by its confinement to established music formulas. Contemporary performers who draw on past styles, such as Amy Winehouse, Ceelo Green, Gnarls Barkley and the Black Keys bring frisson to their work by mixing up the familiar music tropes with contemporary beats and more complex textured sounds. Simply reproducing the sounds of yesteryear without acknowledging the present runs the risk of becoming artistically anachronistic and ahistorical – of creating a sterile pastiche.

The Black River Bandit’s undertaking, a communism-themed jazz opera, can’t help but to invite comparisons to the great Weill/Brecht collaborations like The Threepenny Opera. In “Brothers,” the Brechtian exploration of the criminal underworld in the class struggle is present: the protagonist, the communist outlaw Maguire, seeks vengeance for the murder of his family at the hands of the forces of Law and Order. However, in “Brothers” the class-oriented drama is presented in a one-dimensional way. Brecht allowed the audience to “complete the work” by arriving at their own conclusions. The “social commentary” here is blatant and clumsy, with clunky lines like:

 “I’m so sick and tired of living like a bum/while pig men in fancy suits/steal from everyone,” and, “I don’t give a damn in this economy sucks (sic)/if you’re poor and need to eat then, you’re out of luck.”

The laziness behind these lyrics stands in stark contrast to the expert, hard-working music, making the album uneven. “Black River Bandit” shows promise; hopefully the next release will have more balance. Worth checking out is their website, where the album can be downloaded. The site has some nice illustrations that provide a good visual complement to the music. The renderings of Maguire and other characters are done in a vintage style reminiscent of 19th century “penny dreadfuls” and Outsider artist Henry Darger.