Jo Gabriel – Fools and Orphans

Jo Gabriel
Fools and Orphans

This review is of Jo Gabriel’s limited release version of her album Fools and Orphans on her own Ephemera record label. A gothic, European version will be released in the fall or winter of 2008 on Kalinkaland Records. Self-taught pianist, singer, and song-writer Jo Gabriel delivers an album of intimate and sustained emotional resonance due to her tremulous, yearning vocal delivery and restless runs of piano notes that create a wavering agitation on each song, like raindrops striking the surface of a creek, with the ensuing ripples reverberating long after the source of disruption has dissipated.

Jo possesses warm, bittersweet, mid to high-register, brightly quivering vocals and her delivery and emotional tone are strongly reminiscent of singer/song-writer/composers Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Jo’s vocals revolve around her runs of piano, fluttering like the wings of an anxious bird unsure of the stability of a tree branch, ready to fly off into the vagary of the air. She shapes her words, drawing them out, emphasizing certain phrases, coloring them with her emotions, her inner tumult finding expression through her vocals, piano playing, and lyrics of loss and longing.

Assisting Jo (vocals, piano, keyboard, concertina) on her album are Linda Mackley (tympani, percussion), Matt Turner (cello), Mark Urness (bowed upright bass), Stephanie Rearick (trumpet), Wendy Schneider (guitar), guest vocalist Hannah Fury on “The Habits of Shadows”, guest vocalist Jeff Ladd on the hidden track “Heavy”, a bevy of birds that spontaneously twittered away during the recording of “Of Love and Ether”, and Isis, the Siamese cat yowling at the end of “How the Devil Falls in Love”.

Jo sounds like a breathy Kate Bush on the opener “Bulldozer”, with a trembling, crying ache to her voice as she moves from a mid-range tone to a higher register, never completely placid, hitting the vocal peaks over and over again, as she pours out “Why did we build this love / or was it a dream? / You were the end / to most everything.” The song is imbued with a bittersweet longing, full of tender emotion, caution, and tension developed by Jo’s vocal phrasing which rises in intensity on a chorus of muted trumpet, heightened piano notes, and cymbal shimmer, and subsides on the verses accented by piano notes and cello.

“Fable Honey” lightens up the mood, with Jo singing in a mid-range, carefree tone with an accompaniment of flowing piano runs, subdued trumpet, and pulls of the cello. The chorus moves in at a stormy pace with cymbal shimmer, low, fast piano runs, trumpet, and Jo’s expressive and sometimes doubled vocals. On “The Habits of Shadows” Hannah Fury makes a guest appearance, backing Jo in a whispery, echoed tone amid the quick, constant piano runs and sharp pulls of cello as Jo sings in a clear, but fragile tone that she’s “…surrendered all my nights / to love a shadow.”

Jo is her most emotive on “How the Devil Falls in Love”, imploring against upright bass and an insistent merry-go-round sound that “I always want what I can’t have / What I can’t have is killing me.” Poignant piano and cello add depth to the song as Jo sings sweetly and lightly at the start of the chorus until she reaches an emotional breaking point and pushes her vocals, crying out in an expression of loss, a release that is echoed at the end of the song with her cat Isis yowling away in the background.

“Of Love and Ether” features delicate piano notes, cello, concertina, upright bass, and a background of ebulliently twittering birds as Jo sings expressively “…to invent dreams so easily / It’s the same for love and ether / It burns, it shines / a valentine….” On the chorus she sounds like Kate Bush singing from far away, drawing out a searching call of “yo…yo…yo….” At the other end of the spectrum, “Poison in the Well” is an emotionally troubled confessional with somber bass, sawing cello, and an old-fashioned-sounding piano supporting a yearning Jo keening “You keep setting things on fire / just to try and make you feel…” while an echoed, wordless call hovers like a ghost above the main vocal line.