It seems to me that you’d want to be Petra Haden or at least someone like her. She is a musician—a singer and a violinist—who plays creative music with a wide range of amazing people and seems to follow her whim as she feels it. She has played with Beck, The Decemberists, and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, for example. Her dad is the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden and, as one of triplets, she has a musician sister who happens to be married to actor Jack Black.
And get this: on a crazy whim back in 2005 she made a home recording of The Who album The Who Sell Out consisting only of her own vocals, overdubbed in a mad a cappella experiment. Pete Townsend called this recording “better than a Grammy” for him, and Haden organized a ten-voice a cappella choir (The Sellouts) so she could tour the album.
Haden’s voice has a beautiful cool to it, a kind of chameleon-like evenness that lets her do all sorts of things. On the well-known “I Can See For Miles”, she doesn’t so much mimic The Who’s rock arrangement as she takes the various lines and harmonies and reimagines their textures using her voice in a million ways. She makes her voice sound like buzzing bees, she lays down harmonies that shake and bend, she sings the lead with a sneering cool, and the whole effect is both familiar and wildly disorienting. At its best, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out makes you re-think the original album. It’s almost like what the cubist artists did to regular portraits or still lives—it makes you see something old from multiples angles at once.
Petra is back at it again with a set of 16 pieces of movie music. Petra Goes to the Movies is another almost entirely a cappella affair, a great army of Petra voices, layered to create songs that, on this outing, are more varied in texture and theme and also somewhat more anonymous. In a sense the challenge here is greater because the Kooky Krazy Gimmick of taking a familiar and favorite rock record and wildly changing isn’t there to prop this music up. It’s still a big transformation, but now the originals are less likely to be catchy tunes and more likely to be moody and mysterious.
Much of the music here is a riveting but perhaps peculiar exercise in texture and mood. The highly orchestral opener, the main title from Rebel Without a Cause, has a complex melody and finds Haden imitating a score of different sounds, from cellos to whistles to brass. None of this is exactly true imitation, but Haden uses her voice to create the sonority or buzzing or clatter that somehow makes you realize the idea of an instrument without her actually copying it. “The Planet Krypton” poses a different challenge perhaps, as it is based around a quiet drone that sounds great just as a set of voices that sound relatively like voices, but it still requires eerie effects in the short solo statements.
Some of material Haden has chosen to cover here seems like a straight-up perfect fit for this treatment. “Cool Hand Luke Main Title” starts as a lovely counterpoint between a lead voice and a toggling bass line, which is then supplemented by lush harmonies in the middle range. “Cinema Paradiso” similarly lets Haden just sing in a relatively plain voice, making a lovely theme come alive without too much fuss. These songs could, perhaps, have been sung by any group. But they work in lovely ways.
Some tunes are more campy. I love Haden’s lead vocal on “Goldfinger”—cool and seductive and rich—but the backgrounds sneer and buzz so much that it seems like you are supposed to laugh. “A Fistful of Dollars Theme”, of course, has to ring with those distinctive spaghetti western tones and does—from the brittle vibrato on the lead to the percussive effects on the bottom. “Carlotta’s Gallop” (from 8 ½) is essentially circus music, sung with a garish extremity that is brilliant but hard to want to hear a second time.
Some of this music still has the effect of making you rethink what you thought you already knew. For example, the “Superman Theme” by John Williams is such a wonderful, heraldic theme, and as rendered by Haden’s wordless humming and squealing and singing, the theme is just as good—just as thrilling, but somehow the contrasting themes and the way they interlock with main melody is even more obvious and ingenious. It’s irresistible.
Other pieces are more flatly changed because of being rendered by the human voice. The “Psycho Main Theme” still features that famous pulsing sound, but taken away from stabbing strings and rendered by voices that are sort of breathing at you as they sing, the throbbing seems less menacing and more of a groove, almost a heartbeat.
On a few cuts here, Haden brings in heavy guests to play instruments as necessary. Brad Mehldau accompanies Haden on the Café Baghdad theme “Calling You”, and it is perfectly lovely: austere and simple and crystalline. Haden still lays in extra voices in the background to orchestrate the harmonies, leaving Mehldau to stay simple and clean, though he does take a short and elegant solo. Every little choice is perfect. Frisell’s guitar and Charlie Haden’s bass provide pulse to “This Is Not America” (The Falcon and the Snowman), which is a compelling minor theme. Haden throbs somewhat beneath “Hand Covers Bruise” (from The Social Network)
And Frisell gets to accompany Haden on the lovely “It Might Be You” from Tootsie, a song I had certainly forgotten and had never heard in such a tasteful and lovely. When Haden is singing alone like this—the way most singers normally sing—she can be fragile and full of feeling. Frankly, it makes you wish for a little more of this kind of thing from her. On the other material, her stacked array of toots and whistles and hums can sound just slightly too mechanical. Maybe that’s just the way it is with a cappella music, where the arrangement is probably more important that the performance (unless it’s terrible) and the group dominates any individual effort. “It Might Be You” actually sounds like a deeply personal expression—something that Petra Goes to the Movies might have benefitted from more of.
In the end, a critic is hard-put to ultimately judge the quality or worth of a recording that has no real peer beyond the other work of the same artist. Petra Goes to the Movies is creative, weird, often wonderful, sometimes irritating, and certainly the work of a terrific and inventive musician. You have to want to encourage this sort of things, so funky and stunning is it. But do you really want to listen to it over and over as much as you wish to just let it flower?
Hard to say.