“Witness, however, mostly avoids preaching. Instead, it’s a rich and varied song cycle featuring a full band of local talent ….dealing out folk- and blues-inflected rock. Thematically, says Bell, it’s “one big long song.” Bill O’Driscoll Pittsburgh City Paper
“The densely produced sound pieces fit as well, with a group of scene vets — helping to make “Witness” a cohesive listen from start to finish.” – Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post Gazette
T. Mitchell Bell
The Ballad of Philo Paul
Local singer-songwriter T. Mitchell Bell’s full-length debut is an admirable, sometimes inspired effort. Bell and band ply folkish and folk-rocky territory, his warm, companionable voice tinted by flashes of gospel, blues and funk.
Much of the lyrical terrain is similarly familiar: lost love (“Drowning Blues”); overbooked lives (“Simple”); family (“Father’s Face,” “Manna Mama”). There’s a pithy take on environmental exploitation (“Earth Disease”) and distinct spiritual overtones, especially on the string-sectioned closer, “Enough.” A pretty mandolin figure embosses the beatific “Spruce Creek.”
A few of the 11 tracks have more of a twist. “With You” explores everyday human legacies, with the refrain “You can’t take it with you, it’s what you leave behind.” On “Sago Mine,” Bell portrays a miner less to recount an infamous disaster than to contrast the easy pity of tourists with ongoing coal-town struggles.
I was most drawn, though, to the title song, in which Bell sings the role of his ancestor, a Union soldier slain in the Civil War. The deceptively simple arrangement fuses acoustic guitar, mandolin, claw-hammer banjo, lonesome harmonica and reverby electric-guitar stabs to a shuffling beat, the chorus punctuated by gunshot snare. “These arms weren’t made for killing, but there my brother lay,” sings Bell, exploiting the deeper end of his vocal range to evoke a simple man trapped in the horror of warfare. Unique on an album of songs tackling contemporary concerns, it’s linked to the rest by its deep sense of compassion.
Local Scene: Ballad of T. Mitchell Bell
Thursday, May 14, 2009
By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
T. Mitchell Bell sings “The Ballad of Philo Paul.”
Local roots musician T. Mitchell Bell makes his recording debut with an ambitious record called “The Ballad of Philo Paul.”
Who, you might ask, is Philo Paul?
He was a Union soldier who gave his life in the Civil War during a battle in Virginia. He was also the great-great-grandfather of T. Mitchell Bell, who researched his family and found a diary of his ancestor on the Web.
“Philo was 40 years old when he died. He had nine children, a 200-acre farm, a pretty good life. The Paul family was one of the original settlers in Amwell Township and very prominent in Washington County. I wondered why he enlisted as a private and left his family to go fight the war at 40? I think he wanted to go rather than his oldest son William W. Paul or maybe it was his best friend joined. I still don’t know.”
To tell Pvt. Paul’s tale, Bell leaned on a deep family tradition: music. His great grandfather made fiddles in West Virginia, his grandmother played piano at his church, and his father is a jazz drummer who started him on harmonica when he was 12. Bell then started playing in bands and writing songs when he was a teenager, drawn by the folk-rock of James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Recorded at Sputnik Sound in Nashville, “The Ballad of Philo Paul” is a warmly produced record with lovely melodies, rich ensemble playing, styles that range from folk to blues-rock to gospel and, of course, Bell’s delicate vocal and lyrical touch. It was mastered by Vance Powell, who worked on The Raconteurs’ “Consolers of the Lonely.”
Along with Philo Paul’s ballad, Bell’s debut jumps forward several generations in the family. “Since I had decided on the title track, I thought I would try to choose songs about my family if possible. ‘Father’s Face,’ ‘Manna Momma,’ and ‘Prodigal Son’ I call my family trilogy, which is why I group them together. The hardest part was picking which songs to record. The players on the record helped, especially with Bryn Davies and Rachel Eddy having more of an old-time bluegrass background. Also, I wanted to pick more of my spiritually oriented songs since I was recording in a Christian-based studio. I don’t think of the record as being a Christian record. I don’t say ‘Jesus’ enough, but I do think that some of the songs have touched people and that’s what matters to me as a songwriter.”
Most new music nowadays resembles American Idol glamor icons with little to no talent. T. Mitchell Bell’s album “The Ballad of Philo Paul” is a refreshing solace from the pop images that pervade the music industry. In the folk tradition, “Philo Paul” is an album about heritage, family, history, and struggle. It is an authentic musical composition resembling (along with folk) rock and blues in a subtle, melodic way. All this with some amazing modern production.
Music with skill and integrity, T. Mitchell Bell is one of those artists the music industry needs. I highly recommend it, and I don’t recommend much!
~Daniel (OP, KS)
The word I wanted to use is ‘plaintive.’ But that doesn’t nearly cover even the roots beginnings of T Mitchell Bell’s music, much less the thoroughly thoughtful and beautifully intense end result. And then I thought ‘powerful.’ But that word seems over-used. However I really am finding this recording ‘pretty phenomenal.’
What I’m talking about here is T Mitchell Bell’s recording, The Ballad Of Philo Paul. And what needs conveyed about this powerful collection of songs is not just that they are well-written songs, they are well-*crafted.* He is not just a songwriter, he is a craftsman. And these aren’t just well-crafted songs, this is a total well-crafted package, well-produced, written, even made from environmentally proper recycled materials and soy inks, with the well-being of our planet as well as our selves kept firmly in sight. There has been a lot of thought and consideration, work and time, put into this package, and for those and many other good reasons this should be explored and shared.
These songs run the gamut from gentle sentimentality to full-on rockers, his voice/vocals and instrumentals perfectly fitting to the subjects at hand, his backing musicians added just to complete the powers of his own substantial songwriting. This CD is an education, of touching past historical artifact and of current emotional reality, of how the impersonal relates to the most personal, of important lessons learned that can help make individuals more sensitive to the world at large and the world at large a better place… in short, this is a masterwork. It’s thinking man’s music… the upbeat and the rockers get you moving, but there’s real meat on those rhythmic bones that give your head stuff to chew on.
It’s hard to classify this, is it folk, pop, rock, Americana, blues, bluegrass? It’s intelligent music that doesn’t seek out lowest common denominators but assumes a certain base human sensitivity without becoming cloying, it conveys a sense of original style, and original style is a rare commodity sought out by those who typically settle for much less than Bell offers here. Original style, IMHO, is one of the highest compliments one can pay either a song craftsman or a musician, and Bell carries that rarified mantle beautifully.
Sago Mine, Spruce Creek, The Ballad Of Philo Paul, Simple, Earth Disease… these are very powerful energetic timeless songs that have tons to say, they apply historical fact to emotion and intellectualism and how it all relates to current issues, the stand-outs of the CD upon the first few listenings, but every single song is worth in-depth listening and enjoyment, and in even more depth are the contributions of the surprising backing musicians… there is just so much to be enjoyed on this CD. Yes, depth… plenty of that here, food for every appetite. This is no passing fancy, not one of those CDs you will listen to and put away, this is truly timeless artistic expression that will never fade.
This is seriously good music, crafted to the point that any professional would be proud to have this released, universal messages and very listenable and enjoyable, everything quality thought-provoking thinking man’s music should be. So, in keeping with the theme of ‘p’ words (Philo, Paul, plaintive, powerful, pretty phenomenal), my final word of choice would be a little advice of what to do with this music… ‘purchase’ it!
Anyone who knows me, knows that there are fewer things I love more than discovering new music. As it would happen, an acquaintance through several other local musicians, T. Mitchell Bell, tracked me down a few weeks ago, looking for a percussionist for the upcoming release party-performance of his latest album, “The Ballad of Philo Paul”. Admittedly not being that familiar with his music, he sent me a copy of the new album so I could put some homework in. Well, when I got home from work this past Tuesday evening, the CD was waiting in the mail for me. Though it was late & had been a rather long day, I figured I’d at least check out the first few tracks……..and inadvertently wound up spinning the whole album from start to finish, unable to stop listening. Frankly, I haven’t been able to put it down since. This is absolutely incredible stuff.
Though it’s truly a unique work, I’ll do my best to draw some comparisons for description’s sake. Take the more intimate storyteller aspects of the likes of Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, & James Taylor, and wrap it up in folk music that is equally tinged by subtle elements of blues, country, & rock. And for all the obvious stylistic influences you’ll pick up on while listening, absolutely none of it comes across as a regurgitation of any of the genres – it all sounds fresh & inspired. These songs are polished, & the instrumentation very detailed, filling in the sonic gaps & crafting something that’s obviously been extremely well-thought out.
Not to mention that the quality in production is simply mind-blowing. Very warm & lush, it at once sounds both extremely professional & extremely personal. All too often in this genre (and in independent music in general), you either hear inspiring music that sounds like it was a hack recording job in someone’s basement, or pristine production values surrounding bland & sterile songs. This album is the cream of the crop in both regards, and I’m not quite sure that I’ve heard it’s equal from it’s contemporaries.
Simply put, this album is an example of what happens when the singer/songwriter refuses to pigeonhole themselves to a solitary acoustic guitar & producing a recording that sounds like the performance they gave at their local coffee house the previous evening. Unless I’m actually sitting there watching someone perform, that musical approach tends to become very uninteresting & boring rather quickly when presented on a cd. That’s not to say that this album doesn’t have moments that are purely about one guitar & one voice. But they are captivating moments that are surrounded by many other varying & creative instrumentations, resulting in an album that is far from the “one trick pony” that are an open mic night’s dime-a-dozen. “The Ballad of Philo Paul” is what happens when you’re not afraid to weave a beautiful & diverse musical tapestry within the context of traditional American folk music.
Mitchell, thank you for not only reaffirming that quality folk songwriting is very much alive and well, but that it also doesn’t have to sound like it was recorded on a shoddy old reel-to-reel in order to be valid & honest. Thank you for confirming my belief that folk music can in fact be musically intricate, even if appearing deceptively simple at times. And lastly, thanks for breathing a breath of fresh air into a genre that, in my opinion, has largely become a repetitive cliche of itself. Across my rather broad musical tastes, which span rock, funk, prog, jazz, folk, soul, world, blues, metal, industrial, electronica, & much more, this album has virtually leaped into my Top 10 releases for the year. Keep doing what you’re doing, man. It’s right.