Album review: The Portland Cello Project and Ben Sollee

The cello isn’t just for classical music anymore, if it ever really  was in the first place. This month started with new releases from Lexington’s own Ben Sollee and Northwesterners The Portland Cello Project that highlight the variety of ways the cello is being used.

The Portlanders may look more more like a traditional classical ensemble, though there aren’t many of those that devote themselves to one instrument … or cover of hip hop tunes. Homage is a tribute to recent hip hop by artists such as Jay-Z and Kanye West and an attempt to put the music in a new context so audiences that don’t appreciate rap will appreciate the music. It hits more than it misses with really illuminating takes on songs such as Lil’ Wayne’s She Will and Jay-Z and  West’s H*A*M that really accentuate rhythmic and harmonic lines and reset  the tunes in a 21st century classical context. There is a lot here reminiscent of both pop acts that have classical underpinnings such as the Dave Matthews Band and genre-crossing projects such as Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile’s Goat Rodeo Sessions. The least successful effort is the best known song on the record, Outkast’s Hey Ya.  With a dominant line that mimics the song’s vocal, this rather literal interpretation sounds like an orchestral take for the sake of an orchestral take on the song.

Maybe the coolest thing you can do with bringing a new instrument into a foreign genre is make people forget what instrument they are hearing, because it sounds so natural. That’s what happens in Sollee’s new album, Live at the Grocery on Home, recorded at the Atlanta venue in the title. Sollee has become somewhat known as “the cello guy” in roots and Americana music, but more simply as a singer-songwriter of terrific tunes such as It’s Not Impossible and Bury Me with My Car, featured on this rousing outing. The live setting accentuates Sollee’s rhythmic playing and subtle delivery of pointedly socially conscious lyrics such as Bible Belt. Electrified, appropriately, has captured Sollee at his most rocking. And like his studio efforts, Live at the Grocery on Home captures a Kentucky artist who looked at his instrument and saw no limitations. The CD (which includes two copies, so you can give one to a friend) is available at Louisville’s Heine Bros. Coffee shops, online through bensollee.com and iTunes, and at Sollee’s tour stops.

The Portland Cello Project and guest Ben Sollee perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday (May 7, 2012) at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville. Visit nortoncenter.com for ticket information.

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