Graded on a Curve: Odetta Hartman,
Old Rockhounds
Never Die

Odetta Hartman is a singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist based in New York City, and Old Rockhounds Never Die is her second album. As on her first, she plays all the instruments, with the main threads being guitar, banjo, and fiddle. If this sounds like another release for the ever-growing Americana pile, nix that notion right now, as Hartman’s songs blend the classic and the contemporary as partner and co-producer Jack Inslee infuses the selections with digital environments that are sometimes electronic, often intriguing, and frequently psychedelic. It makes for a strange but highly accessible listen, and it’s out August 10 on vinyl and digital through Northern Spy.

Odetta Hartman’s upbringing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side comes close to the model of raising ‘em right. Northern Spy’s typical engaging promo text mentions “early exposure to community activism, renegade film screenings, poetry readings and trips to CBGB’s.” Along with soaking up punk and hip-hop, there was also a jukebox in the house loaded with her father’s classic soul and Afrobeat records and her Appalachian mother’s old-school country sides.

This bears mentioning not to support the idea that Hartman’s creativity in adulthood was somehow inevitable, but instead to illuminate the planted seed that led to the sheer diversity of ingredients in her bag, components that on paper are likely to instill doubts as to the overall effectiveness of the endeavor, with the disparate combinations destined to register in varying measures forced.

Good thing records aren’t experienced on paper. As on her 2015 full-length 222, the blend of the old-timey and the cutting-edge is striking in it’s unusualness but never incongruent as it ultimately coheres into a rewarding personal approach; it only takes a listen to perceive Hartman’s vision as unmistakable from anyone else’s.

Helping matters is that her old-timey side isn’t especially rustic, but rather pop, though the short opening title-track song-fragment of Hartman’s sophomore effort does still radiate like something from the era of the Victrola. A little hill-bluesy but with an urbane streak, it’s a vibe that could’ve been easily squandered; it’s not hard to imagine lesser hands hindering it with triteness a la fake surface noise.

That is to say, Mr. Inslee knows when it’s appropriate to hang back, though he’s anything but hesitant in the following “Cowboy Song,” imbuing Hartman’s banjo pluck, pulled bow, and chanteuse moves with synthetic pulse and reverberations. At just a shade over two minutes, it’s impressive how quickly the mingling comes together; “You You” isn’t that much longer, but it connects like a fully formed playfully eccentric contempo pop single, and nicely serves to underline that the old-new divide isn’t the only card in the deck.

The banjo returns for “Widow’s Peak,” though the tunes folk bent is certainly post-’60s in flavor. There’s also thunder, or what seems to be thunder at least, as Hartman and Inslee openly relate the use of Foley art (the cinematic making of sounds that resemble other sounds); I’m fairly certain the bookending locomotive in “Cowboy Song” is real, however.

It’s also worth relating Hartman’s range on trad instrumentation; the guitar in “Sweet Teeth” exudes a slight Spaghetti Western feel, but the gist of the tune, as in “You You,” is pop of the moment. Another brief fragment in “Auto” offers what sounds like a strummed harp (maybe a dulcimer), and together with the distinctiveness of voice, one might momentarily think of Joanna Newsom, though Old Rockhounds Never Die is very much its own thing, even as Inslee vaguely fits onto the Van Dyke Parks role, particularly during the island-like faux glockenspiels of “Smoke Break.”

But as said, sometimes his contribution is barely felt, as in the spare banjo and sexiness of “Honey.” I suppose one could tag Hartman’s work as folktronica; in some ways, “The Ocean” comes closest to resembling the style, but beginning with beachy strummed-pop quaintness, after an electro-symphonic spike, the track ends with an unexpected spoken passage.

Part of the album’s success comes through brevity, with all but two of the selections under three minutes on length, though the picking, vocal breathiness, and electro throb of “Spit” connects as well-thought out and complete, and the fragmentary cuts effective as preludes or bridges (a technique formulated in live performance). Such is the case with “Freedom” as it leads into the record’s standout piece. It feels like a spoiler to relate that “Misery” employs the sound of gunshots in conjuring its bluesy futurism, but even with this foreknowledge it still holds the capacity for surprise.

“Dettifoss” is another short track with a chamber feel distinct from Hartman’s general tendency for fiddling, and it leads into the album’s longest entry in “Carbon Copy,” complete with touches of bookending birdsong (and complementary electro flutters in the song’s midsection). It’s tranquil ending leads into “Still Alive,” a slowed-down return to the disc’s opener, here serving as a finale accentuating the approachable weirdness of the whole.

Again, in terms of pure sonics, Old Rockhounds Never Die isn’t really reminiscent of other current releases, but it’s safe to suggest that folks into Juana Molina will dig Odetta Hartman, too.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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