T. Mitchell Bell examines contemporary life, genealogy on The Ballad of Philo Paul | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

T. Mitchell Bell examines contemporary life, genealogy on The Ballad of Philo Paul

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.


T. Mitchell Bell CD Release. 8 p.m. Fri., May 15. Rhythm House Café, 3029 Washington Pike, Bridgeville. $10 advance. 412-221-5010

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