Petra Haden and Bill Frisell collaborate on their eponymous album with a natural aplomb that epitomizes the beauty of music’s interactive quality. The two operate in distinct fields: Petra was the violinist and vocalist of Los Angeles wunderkinds that dog., and continues to perform both as a solo artist and in conjunction with a diverse peer set, from Miss Murgatroid to Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto; man-about-town Bill Frisell has lent his trademark guitar-work to his share of folks, ranging from Melvin Gibbs to Paul Motian, the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Van Dyke Parks. However, these two seemingly disparate bodies carry souls with a common vision. Sharing keen musicianship and infectious charm (just look at the two in the CD art with their adorable mugs in side-by-side headshots), Petra and Bill tackle a wide array of pop standards — ranging from Gershwin and Mancini to Grohl and Martin (Chris, that is) — with sensitive arrangements and a sense of complete abandon. Although the song selection proves to be the most adventurous quality, the album is nevertheless a startling and refreshing set of pop, an understated collection that reflects the humble yet profound presence both bring to their work; they speak volumes by saying so little.
Petra and Bill open with a restrained reading of Elliot Smith’s “Satellite” that establishes the key elements of their collaboration. Petra’s plaintive vocals (a style that has become de rigeur for numerous indie female vocalists; see Rilo Kiley) drift over Bill’s sparse and atmospheric guitar textures and her sustained violin notes. They understand the nature of the composition, with its air of tension as opposed to the pop standard of build, peak, and valley. Both Petra and Bill play with restraint, responding instead to each other to create new affects in their rendition. Petra’s enunciated phrasing gives her vocals a deliberate distance, as opposed to Smith’s whispered air of intimacy. The effect is startling, like a splash of cold water, especially when she reaches the lyric, “‘Cause the lines you drop put ice in my veins”. Meanwhile, Bill adds subtle and echoed arpeggios to bring out the harmonies in the backing track. The reading contains an unavoidable poignancy in light of Smith’s recent passing, but the two approach his work with a remarkable sense of respect.
Given Petra’s past work both within and with indie rock illuminati, the Smith cover comes not as a surprise. So, the duo’s choice of more accessible and mainstream pop is of particular interest. “Floaty” is one of the surprise highlights, a Dave Grohl/Foo Fighters piece that revolves around a simple loping lyric. The song is a perfect vehicle for Petra and Bill; Frisell’s subtle guitar effects and sparks, and Haden’s shifting voice perfectly encapsulate the ethereal and wistful theme. Once again, the two use control to their advantage: for example, Petra coos the verses, opening her voice for the arena-sized chorus, but never filling it to capacity; instead, she releases a soft harmony into the space which spreads like air molecules. In a similar manner, they approach “Yellow”, their subtlety allowing them to do a credible job of salvaging the song from its super-sized media hype. By stripping away much of popular music’s hyperbole and replacing it with sincere vocal takes, and guitar leads that reach for something reachable — the clouds, not the stars — the effect is profound. Thus, Frisell and Haden are able to bring down songs from their stratospheric pedestal, and deliver approachable, humble conversations.
When Petra and Bill dip into the pop handbook from the other side of the 20th century, the true centerpiece of the album comes to light: Petra’s voice. She has grown immensely over the years, singing now with both her trademark fragility and blossoming robustness. On both “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Moon River”, Frisell provides only subtle accompaniment to push Petra’s vocal leads along as he plays in sync with Haden’s inflections, against the melody, and finds harmonic lows to push her highs or harmonic highs to fill out her lows. On “Moon River” particularly, their graceful clip actually mirrors Hepburn’s take, minus the gilded gloss. With such light accompaniment and direct singing, their renditions are welcome additions… or are they subtractions?
While the duo’s approach remains consistent on each track, their interpretations are especially noteworthy on the most dramatically rearranged compositions. “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”, a nugget by Tom Waits by way of the Ramones, is reborn as an old timey, quasi-bluegrass romp that captures the song’s subject of defiance of time, of being stuck between the ages. Opening with soft chimes that evoke an infant’s crib ornaments, Petra sings with a child-like tone — high notes, simple accentuation, throaty singing – embodying the narrator’s perspective. Although their rendition is titled “I Don’t Want To…”, Petra cleverly alternates between the mature posturing of “I Don’t Want To” and the childish stubbornness of “I Don’t Wanna”: “I don’t wanna have to shout it out / I don’t want my hair to fall out / I don’t wanna be filled with doubt / I don’t want to be a good boy scout / I don’t wanna hafta learn to count / I don’t wanna have the biggest amount / I don’t / Want / To grow up”. Petra and Bill follow this youth’s anthem with an anthem for numerous youths, “When You Wish Upon A Star”, another startling cover for its sheer sincerity and unabashed sense of romance. Haden reaches for unheralded notes, hitting them with a tenderness and accuracy that evokes the song’s dream-like quality. Following with a Stevie Wonder anthem, “I Believe”, Petra and Bill enter alarming territory by covering work with considerable precedent. Once again, the two utilize their affinity to its fullest, constantly building and swaying with each other, and pay their respects to the subtleties of the composition. Tense strings help sustain the tension as Petra works ably on the leaping vocal melody. With remarkable subtlety, Bill introduces an electric guitar lead only to aid and eventually guide the song’s peak, eventually softening to an echoed blues riffing that lays the song back down on its rightfully cushioned altar.
The album is filled out with one original from each collaborator, both “humstramentals”. “The Quiet Room”, Petra’s contribution, contains hummed melodies set to a stately descending waltz. Multiple tracks of her voice wrap the rhythm guitar within melody, counter-melody, and harmony. Bill’s work, “Throughout”, closes the album on a similar note, placing Petra’s oohs over another guitar waltz, although most of the dynamism comes from Frisell’s harmonies this time. Petra provides simple, sustained vocals, building the melody over the course of 24 bars, but constantly evolving and mutating, finding difference through cleverly placed harmonized accents. The works display Petra’s burgeoning composition skills, not unlike Brian Wilson, circa Smile, and a tender side to Frisell’s weightier works.
The album is a fascinating listen, prompting and demanding repeated spins. Their subtle and restrained approach to works with such established presence makes for a wonderful result. Hardly the highlight of their respective catalogs, there is still much that would appeal to both old fans of, and new audiences for the artists. However, given the preeminence of Petra, this album skews towards her fan base. Nevertheless, the album’s sense of breathing room and lack of fuss emphasizes the joy of creating music. Petra has made impressive strides since breaking from that dog.; this album solidifies her remarkable talent. Bill Frisell established his reputation long-ago, and continues to push his limits. For the listener, the message is simple: when was the last time you just sat down and had Fun?