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Poorhouse Gorgeous/Hexbelt - Poorhouse Gorgeous
CD Review by Jud Conway on 8/16/2010   

Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Dann Ottemiller has been a staple of central Pennsylvania’s fertile music scene for over twenty years. In the late 1980’s, he co-founded Once Fish, a jam-band that attained considerable cult-status, embarked on a grueling self-financed cross-country tour as far west as Montana and Colorado, and left behind one independent album, From the Breathing Room to Ward (1995).  Around 1997, Once Fish underwent several lineup changes and morphed into Ottemiller’s current long-standing project, Hexbelt, notwithstanding a short stint as Pretzel.  Ottemiller and company released the well-received wonderland? (1998) on indie label Fatback Records and spent the better part of the next twelve years cultivating a rabid fan base and planting deeper roots in their namesake Pennsylvania Dutch country. Meanwhile, Ottemiller augmented Hexbelt’s busy schedule with various outside gigs; sometimes solo in nature, but more often with other Susquehanna Valley musical luminaries.  In addition, he continued to prolifically write and record original material with a host of players, which, until now, has been commercially unavailable. Earlier this summer, Ottemiller finally released his de facto solo debut, the much-anticipated Poorhouse Gorgeous.

Dann Ottemiller describes the roots-inflected Poorhouse Gorgeous, loosely named after a York, PA, Codorus Creek tributary called Poorhouse Run, as a “Hexbelt family album.”  While all of the band’s current members, including Mike Couch (lead guitar), Neal Kreider (bass), and Brendan McGowan (drums), participated, to some degree, in the recordings that comprise Poorhouse Gorgeous, the album possesses a warmer acoustic folk/Americana vibe than the full-on jam band leanings of Hexbelt.  The album’s eleven tracks were actually recorded over a period of several years, dating back to 2005, at Elemental Studios in Lancaster, PA, in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Pete Barnhart, best known for his involvement with the now-defunct central PA jam band Burning Bus. While Barnhart contributed musically to all but one of the Poorhouse Gorgeous tracks, it was, arguably, his role as the album’s co-producer, engineer and mixer that gave Ottemiller the means necessary to bring his musical vision to fruition. Additionally, Poorhouse Gorgeous boasts contributions from a veritable who’s who within the central Pennsylvania music scene, including longtime Ottemiller accomplice, solo artist, and former Hexbelt guitarist/mandolinist Dave SanSoucie (Dave Olney, Cahoots, Moonbillies, et al.), vocalist/keyboardist Loretta (Loretta Bilieux, Burning Bus), accordionist/vocalist Trixie Greiner (Burning Bus/Inca Campers/Matrix), lap steel player/guitarist Chad Kinsey (Highfalootin, Loretta Bilieux, Burning Bus), upright bassist Charlie Burnett (The Vinegar Creek Constituency, Highfalootin, et al.), guitar wizard and solo recording artist Corty Byron, Jr. (Corty Byron & the Green Onions), who recently released his own debut, Endless North, and Berklee-trained guitarist-for-hire Craig Graham, who has performed or recorded with everyone from jazz bassist Jeff Andrews to genre-bending NYC jam band Rural Free Delivery.

In contrast to the whimsically-colorful hex symbol that featured prominently on the front cover of Hexbelt’s wonderland?, Ottemiller’s most personal collection of songs thus far consists solely of the two-word title, stamped in unassuming black-inked cursive lettering, on a plain brown cardboard sleeve, composed of 100% recycled stock.  Ottemiller’s own name, as recognizable as it has become on his home turf, is listed only within the credits contained therein. The focus of Poorhouse Gorgeous lies squarely on the songs, which are presented in a warm, unadorned nature, sans overly-gratuitous overdubs or highly-incidental accoutrements. As a songwriter, Ottemiller has absorbed the influence of both legacy artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and contemporary peers like Jerry Joseph and Dan Bern, injecting his own unique knack for intelligent wordplay into the heart of his best work, challenging his listeners with lyrics that invite myriad interpretation. 

Possibly the most single-worthy track on Poorhouse Gorgeous, the upbeat opener, “Nightgown,” inquires, “What time is the party, when will it begin?” and wryly asks listeners, “Would you like to hear this song on your radio?” It effectively sets the tone for the rest of a record that takes many of its cues from the countrified singer/songwriter medium, complete with a bluegrass-tinged nylon-string guitar solo, courtesy of Craig Graham.  Thanks, in part, to several gigs that Hexbelt played with the legendary New Riders of the Purple Sage, the song has been slated for possible inclusion on the companion CD sampler in the August, 2010, issue of Relix magazine.

Other key tracks include the playful “Rabbit Hole,” which closes with the line, “When I get to Wonderland, I will call on you,” a reference not lost on longtime fans of Hexbelt, the loping “Willow Tree,” a sweet pedal steel-laced, fretless bass-driven number Ottemiller co-wrote with Bridgette Poe, in which the song’s narrator observes both the obvious, “You come in from the the barn stinkin’ like the stables,” and the omniscient, “You don’t fit into no pigeonhole…, …you’re not a piece of the puzzle.” In “Angel Food Cake,” one of the album’s more laid-back numbers, Ottemiller references Don McLean’s signature song, asking listeners to simply, “lay down in the moss, gaze up at the sky, angel food cake and American pie.” In “Finders Keepers,” Ottemiller speaks of two lovers who have found each other by sheer power of destiny. Cryptically, he mentions in the liner notes that, “Hank, Sr., helped with this one in a lucid dream.”  Possessing deceptively simple verbiage that beautifully-articulates couplets like, “every time you open your heart it gets broken …and everytime you swallow your pride, you’re chokin’,” along with an unforgettable melody, courtesy of Ottemiller, Couch and former Hexbelt bassist Nathan Erbe, “Shadow of a Tsaobt” will, undoubtedly, resonate long after its four minutes and forty-five seconds. It is arguably, one of the most gorgeous cuts on Poorhouse Gorgeous, the long-overdue album that could take Dann Ottemiller’s musical journey well beyond York’s Poorhouse Run.

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