This album is like a ball of string, a compact mass of different threads and layers. On the outer layer you have the guest musicians, who contribute, to one track, a sheng, to another two tracks a cymbalom, to three others, Tuvan khoomei, so that every new song has something surprising in it. Then there is a second layer, the group itself, Hazmat Modine. Most of the time they sound like tinpan alley blues players from very old records. Inside them, forming the third and ultimate layer, you have the two harmonica players who started the band, Wade Schuman and Randy Weinstein. Schuman also sings, in a vivacious and flexible alleycat voice. The harmonicas turn the tinpan alley blues sound into harmonica blues, full of suck and swing.
I can describe their sound quickly by telling you about the last song, “Man Trouble”. It’s a chugging meditation on a piece by Jaybird Coleman, a blues harmonica player who lived in Alabama until his death in 1950. Coleman’s version is about three minutes long, but when Hazmat Modine play it the song runs for eleven minutes, and includes passages of whistling sygyt from Huun-Huur-Tu. The guitars grunt and chop with the heft of a steam train, the harmonicas flutter, Wade Schuman moans “Hey-hey-hey-oooh-ah!”, and one of the Tuvans lets out a long tundra vibration that rears out and rises and falls into a windy quaver. Everything is more dramatic than it was in the 1930 original—the sound is slower and heavier, and Schuman throws in extra groans. Bahamut is old New York huckster showmanship, hopping with exaggeration and bravura; it’s also a cross-cultural collaboration, a celebration of pre-1950s American musical pop culture, and a polished piece of work.
The only well-known musician I can think of to compare them with is Tom Waits. Their album has the eccentricity of Mule Variations with some of The Black Rider‘s circus crackle worked in. What it doesn’t have is Waits’s stewing, hermetic passion. Hazmat Modine sound gregarious. They’re open and playful. If Tom Waits seems to be putting strange noises together because it’s the only way he can reach into his brain and get whatever is bothering him out into the open, then Hazmat Modine sound as if they keep coming across new friends who play fabulously interesting instruments. A sheng? Why not? Great noise! Let’s see what we can do with it. A cymbalom? Let’s put it in a swing track! How does it sound? Wonderful! (And it is. Cymbaloms are wonderful no matter where they go, but this one really does sound good.)
The idea of playfulness, of unusual things being explored because exploration is fun, is everywhere in this album. The instruments bounce with joy. Even the packaging is playful. The liner booklet is decorated with old black and white photographs that have been doctored to include the name of the band, as if Hazmat Modine exists only as a series of masks worn by bands throughout the ages. A row of children in high-laced boots is ‘Hazmat Modine—At Fall Creek—July 4—1913’; while a stiff quartet that includes two men wearing curled, antiquated moustaches and a round-faced boy who looks as if he’s stepped out of Edward Gorey, has a sign that reads ‘Hazmat Modine’ propped in front of it on the road.
The band can be playful in their lyrics as well. The title song, “Bahamut”, comes with a spoken word litany of absurdities. “No one has ever seen Bahamut”, we learn, thanks to its massive size. All of us are floating inside a bowl, on a tortuga, on a mountain, in an acacia tree, which grows from “the snout of a giant blood-red ox with fifty eyes”, which fits inside one of the Bahamut’s tears. “Some think it’s a fish… some think it’s a newt…” Listening to this is like hearing someone recite “Jabberwocky”. You don’t for a moment believe that Schuman really thinks that there is a giant fish/newt beast holding the universe suspended in its tear, but the cadences and the exaggeration are entertaining. It’s a fun conceit, and he relishes the chance to make rangy, seductive vowel sounds.
He has the same relish in his voice when he sings about his girlfriend crying (“Broke My Baby’s Heart”) or betraying him (“Who Walks in When I Walk Out?”) which makes it no more possible to believe in the existence of a real, live, crying, untrustworthy woman than it does to believe in the giant newt. At one point in the live recording of “Broke My Baby’s Heart” the word ‘baby’ takes over his vocal cords and makes him scream, “Bay bay bay bay bay …” in a twirling, repetitive falsetto. It’s a brilliant flourish, and the audience applauds, thrilled, as audiences at ballets do after the ballerina has tried to pirouette herself dizzy.
It’s his skill they’re applauding, though, not his sincerity, and this is the one thing that makes the album less than satisfying. Musically, it’s too complicated and clever to be considered lightweight, but the band’s blues style cues the listener to anticipate dark emotions that never arrive. I can recommend Bahamut because I don’t think you’re going to hear these instruments being used in this ingenious way again any time soon, but I wonder, if you unwound that ball of string completely, how much you would find at the core.
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// Notes from the Road
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