Friday, February 08, 2013

Petra Haden's "Petra Goes To the Movies"

Back in 2005, your humble chronicler o' events waxed rhapsodic over singer-arranger extraordinaire Petra Haden's album on which she covered The Who Sell Out in its entirety -- a bravura feat, and one guaranteed to appeal to only the smallest possible niche audience (fans of the pre-Tommy Who that'd be interested in listening to a whole album of acapella singing). She's kept a low profile since then, so the arrival of this new collection -- which her label, Anti-, has seen fit to stream on Youtube, complete with amusing images (scroll down a couple of posts to listen) -- was greeted like a Candygram from the gods at my house.

On Petra Goes To the Movies, Haden applies her skills to a selection of film music, crafting full acapella arrangements for most, singing lyrics over instrumental accompaniment (from guitarist Bill Frisell, father-bassist Charlie Haden, and pianist Brad Mehldau) on a small handful. The result is a varied program that combines the strengths of her Sell Out cover with those of her self-titled 2003 collaboration with Frisell.

The selection of tunes is ace, and the album plays like a love letter to the masterworks of composers Bernard Herrmann (the claustrophobic "God's Lonely Man" from Taxi Driver and the archetypal horror movie theme from Psycho), Ennio Morricone ("Cinema Paradiso" and "A Fistful of Dollars Theme"), Nino Rota (the madcap "Carlota's Galop" from 8 1/2, which recalls Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance"), and Lalo Schifrin (the wistful main title theme from Cool Hand Luke).

Inevitably, the melodies evoke not only the plots of the films they served, but personal experential signifiers -- I can't hear "God's Lonely Man," for instance, without remembering that I took my girlfriend at the time to see it thinking it was a comedy (true story), or John Williams' "The Planet Krypton" and "Superman Theme" without remembering walking a mile in the rain to see Superman in the theater (I was young, single, and bored). But where the listener has no reference point besides the music itself (as I don't for Trent Reznor's "Hand Covers Bruise" from The Social Network), Haden's craft still beguiles the ear. Her vocal arrangements are clever and exquisitely detailed, whether the material she's adapting is dense or lush.

That's not to sell her lyric readings short, however. In fact, the best way into this for Haden novices might just be through one of these performances: Dave Grusin's "It Might Be You" from Tootsie, say, where you can see the lyricist pulling the strings, but the sentiment pulls you in anyway, or Pat Metheny's "This Is Not America," which David Bowie sang in The Falcon and the Snowman. Haden's as skillful an interpreter as she is an arranger. Hopefully she won't have to wait another eight years for her next release.


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