Graded on a Curve: Petra Haden, Imaginaryland and Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

Petra Haden has accumulated a long list of credits in her 20-plus years as a professional musician; alongside her proficiency on a variety of instruments including main axe the violin is a unique and welcoming aptitude as a singer, and fortunate ears received an eclectic dip into her vocal talents via the largely a cappella 1996 debut Imaginaryland. It paired well with 2005’s Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, a voice-only reconstruction of the stone classic from the titular British band, and in a fine turn of events both releases have been given fresh vinyl pressings through the auspices of the perennially classy Hoboken, NJ label Bar/None. Get ‘em while they’re hot.

Generally the first thing related in essays of Petra Haden’s background is her deep familial roots. Being a triplet sister fathered by the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden isn’t the sort of information that gets cast aside, especially since Rachel and Tanya are also musicians; the three have recorded as the Haden Triplets, in fact. Older brother Josh further adds to the equation as the longtime leader of the group Spain.

Sheer acumen as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist has secured Petra’s role in a wide range of bands and projects; she’s a former member of The Decemberists, was half of duos with Bill Frisell, Miss Murgatroid (aka Alicia J. Rose) and Yuka Honda (as If By Yes), and has contributed to recordings by The Twilight Singers, Victoria Williams, and Sunn O))).

She made her initial splash as violinist-vocalist next to bassist-vocalist sister Rachel, guitarist-vocalist Anna Waronker and drummer Tony Maxwell in that dog. As a draftee of the David Geffen Conglomerate the indie/alt outfit released three well-regarded full-lengths from ’93 to ’97; while they did find an audience in the midst of the flood of product hitting record store shelves across the decade, with the exception ’97’s minor Modern Rock hit “Never Say Never” they lacked the chart motion desired by the majors.

Petra’s solo debut Imaginaryland quietly appeared on WIN Records shortly prior to the emergence of that dog’s swan song Retreat from the Sun. Fans of the group who took a copy home were possibly struck by opener “Look Both Ways Before You Cross” dispensing with the distorted guitars and rhythmic thump of that dog while retaining the harmony as rendered here through carefully crafted overdubs.

The result is buoyant and bright whilst avoiding preciousness and gaining value in brevity; conversely, “Cuckoo Clock” spreads out a bit as the layered repetition validates the stated influence of Steve Reich. There is just a hint of added instrumentation augmenting the piece, and it’s here that the surprise of ’90s listeners likely gave way to enjoyment over Haden’s pure skillfulness in action.

Imaginaryland isn’t accurately assessed as a polished affair, with the rough audio edges of the concise “Apple Juice” helping to insinuate a rough collection of tunes rather than a complete thematic statement; reinforcing this circumstance is a cover of Enya’s “Watermark,” which shifts from the a cappella environment to the placidity of plucked and strummed strings (one instrument seems to be a mandolin) and then quickly back to wordless singing for an energetic reading of Bach’s “Prelude No. 2 in C Minor (For Well-Tempered Voice).”

Haden’s capacity for adaptation can be remarkable, but “I’m Tired” flaunts her ability at weaving ambitious yet accessible sonic originals as “Red” features vocals and instrumentation as swells of Beach Boys-esque harmony gets combined with woody chamber bowing. It leads into a stunning violin excursion into “Song for the Whales,” a composition of her father’s from the 1979 ECM LP by the group Old and New Dreams.

Approximating the calls of the marine mammals, Haden dishes some excellent string sawing as cello arises to enhance the rich baroque atmosphere. It’s the edgiest piece here, though the cyclical “How Are You?” continues to emphasize her interest in the avant-garde. Haden also professed to soaking up a lot of film scores as she made this album; a reading of Barry Adamson and Miranda Sex Garden’s “Il Soltario,” taken from the now obscure 1991 neo-noir Delusion, is among the selections.

A pleasant choral plunge slightly recalling the prime work of the Swingle Singers, it’s followed by the crisp, pretty plucked strings of “Richard.” Penultimate track “Moonmilk” deftly and swiftly expands from one voice to a flowering of mingled vocalizing, and “I” wields the singsongy wordless flow to an abrupt conclusion.

Although she remained quite active in the interim, nearly a decade elapsed before her second solo effort came out, and if Imaginaryland kinda fell through the cracks (at least that’s this writer’s perception) a certain amount of ballyhoo accompanied Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out when it hit the racks.

Due to the boldness of concept, that’s understandable; reconstructing a much-loved LP using only vocal sounds would seem at worst a recipe for creative disaster and at best a novelty. But if it’s hard to deny the nature of gimmick, by the end of “Armenia City in the Sky” it’s abundantly clear Haden exceeded expectations through diligence of construction and pure inspiration.

Cut on a TASCAM 488 Portastudio 8-track cassette recorder given to her by Minutemen bassist Mike Watt with The Who’s original on one track and the other seven ready for her input, the story behind the music’s genesis certainly increases the allure, as does her decision to recreate the faux radio commercials helping to make The Who Sell Out such an enduring favorite.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” is that it comes off completely naturally, while she expertly toys with eccentricity during “Odorono.” There’s not an inkling of strain as “Tattoo” unfolds, and indeed many of The Who’s root sources feel almost tailor-made for Haden’s treatment.

Such is the case with “Our Love Was,” and if tenacious radio rotation has long embedded “I Can See for Miles” in the cultural consciousness Haden sharpens her focus and transforms it into Petra Haden Sings’ standout moment. Some have quibbled over the limitations of the 8-track device, but to these lobes the modest apparatus keeps the proceedings from getting too grandiose (recall that The Who Sell Out benefits from a tight budget).

After “I Can See for Miles” it’s all gravy, succeeding with flying colors because as Haden achieves something legitimately original she doesn’t forget that “I Can’t Reach You” is simply a great song. This doesn’t prohibit her from injecting touches of the psychedelic to “Relax” and “Sunrise,” deepening the potential of “Silas Stingy” as a schoolyard limerick, and delivering a vibrant “Rael” to close the LP.

Petra Haden Sings can register as a huge artistic leap, though the core of its accomplishment rests in how she built upon the wordless a cappella of Imaginaryland to serve as the bedrock for her transformation of The Who Sell Out. Bar/None gives Haden’s debut its first vinyl edition as it nicely complements the masterpiece of her solo discography.

Imaginaryland
B+

Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
A

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