March 26, 2013

Petra Haden



By Michael Sigman


wo songs delivered by septuagenarians were among the high-points of this year’s otherwise mediocre Oscar broadcast. Early on, Shirley Bassey (76), wearing a stunning golden gown (and her own jewels!) belted out a reprise of “Goldfinger,” her signature song from the 1964 Bond flick of the same name. Dame Shirley’s relationship with the high notes wasn’t always perfect, but her gutsy performance was a thrilling reminder of the enduring power of her voice and the staying power of the best movie themes.

Towards the end of the show Barbra Streisand (70) — looking majestic in black and gold — sang “The Way We Were,” the nostalgia-inspiring gem by Marvin Hamlisch/Marylin and Alan Bergman from the eponymous 1973 film starring Babs and Robert Redford. (Streisand’s recording was an instant hit and went on to become the top selling single of the year. This performance was a tribute to Hamlisch, her long-time friend, who died last year at 68 and whose image closed out the “In Memoriam” segment of the program.

“The Way We Were” and “Goldfinger” ran rings around “Skyfall,” this year’s “Best Song” from the Bond movie of the same name; and they underscored the sorry state of movie themes in the 21st Century. (The most notable winner is probably “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” a catchy ditty but hardly a masterwork.) They also evoked the halcyon days of songs in film — roughly the 1930s through the ’70s — during which movie themes were often integral to a film’s story and frequently became standards in their own right.

(The ’60s alone produced such evergreens as “Never on Sunday,” “Moon River,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “The Windmills of Your Mind” and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” “Goldfinger” (1964) wasn’t even nominated.)

Movie theme fans — or just plain music fans — might have been better off had they traded their TV clickers for headphones and listened to Petra Haden’s new album Petra Goes To The Movies (Anti-), the singer’s stunning reimagining of 16 movie themes.

Petra AlbumIf this record is your introduction to Haden — the daughter of iconic bassist Charlie Haden, sister of singers Rachel and Tanya (they’re triplets) and bassist Josh Haden — you’ll find it hard to believe that this astounding and quirky array of sounds is not merely sung a cappella, but all by Petra herself, layering her voice multiple times. (On a couple of tracks, her dad, guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Brad Mehldau add to the mix.)

Haden’s uncanny ability to imitate strings, horns and even percussion instruments conjures the sounds of a whimsical symphony and then some. The Beach Boy-esque harmonies are so gorgeous she could be singing the telephone book. And her genre-jumping — or should I say genre-integrating — skills produce a variety of sonic delights as musical as they are impressive.

Petra Goes To The Movies features words-and-music songs (the touching “It Might Be You” (Tootsie), the oft-covered “Calling You” (Bagdhad Café) and instrumental themes such as “A Fistful of Dollars,” “Superman” and “Taxi Driver.”

Those of us who have taken piano or other musical instrument lessons can still hear the voices of our teachers encouraging (or, counterproductively, demanding) that we make the music “sing,” to make it come as close as possible to the human voice after which it was patterned.

Haden turns that equation on its head, making the instruments sing via her own unique voice. Her love of instruments was crucial to her ability to recreate their sounds, in genres ranging from classical to jazz to blues to pop.

Petra’s “Goldfinger” wisely avoids competing with Bassey’s definitive interpretation. Instead, she deploys dense harmonies and a gentle bass line to produce a tone of mystery rather than triumph. (More important, where Bassey sings “Goldfinguh” Petra sticks with “Goldfinger.”)
Petra captures the daring of Trent Rezner/Atticus Ross’s techno-buzzed “Hand Covers Bruise” from The Social Network; and her rendering of “Carlotta’s Gallop” from Fellini’s 8-1/2 gives listeners a ration of surrealism by way of Nino Rota. “Psycho” (Bernard Hermann) presents an entirely new and scary way of hearing the sounds of one of the most famously terrifying scenes in movie history; and John Williams’ “Superman” is so super he merits two entries: the stirring march that’s already lodged in everyone’s head and the lesser known “Planet Krypton,” where Haden’s swirling vocals suggest a planet in crazy jazz orbit.

Petra Goes to the Movies is hardly Haden’s first act of musical daring. In 2005, she released an entirely a cappella reinvention of the groundbreaking concept album The Who Sell Out (1967), best known for the biting “I Can See for Miles” and the hilarious mock-radio commercials.

The Who’s leader Pete Townshend himself, always a severe critic of covers of his material, told the Boston Globe:
“I was a little embarrassed to realize I was enjoying my own music so much, for in a way, it was like hearing it for the first time. What Petra does with her voice, which is not so easy to do, is challenge the entire rock framework?”

The quality of the songs aside, the most egregious musical blunder at this year’s Oscars was the decision to pipe in the orchestra from a remote location rather than having the conductor and the musicians share the stage with the singers and dancers. Severe mixing problems ensued.

The controversial choice of the brilliant but mega-caustic Seth MacFarlane to host this year’s telecast suggests that the Academy is willing to step far, far outside of the box of traditional taste.

Next time, how about a truly radical change of pace? If the powers that be invite Petra to host (or at least to handle the music), her one-woman orchestra can take care of everything!



By Wendy Block

Whimsy was — no doubt — a quality highly praised during Petra Haden’s childhood. My first experience of her was as one-third of the Haden Triplets, who harmonized on an old country standard “Single Girl, Married Girl” (“Single Girl/goes to the store & buys/Married Girl/ rocks the cradle & cries”), in concert with their dad, stepmom, brother Josh (founder, bassist, vocalist of Spain), and Nashville instrumental luminaries, celebrating Charlie Haden’s 2008 bluegrass release, Ramblin’ Boy, or as he characterized the genre he started in as a two year old yodeler with his family in 1940, “hillbilly music.” And Jack Black, married to Petra’s triplet Tanya, who cavorted about the stage with mad charm.

You hear it in Petra Goes to the Movies — from the ascending mini-guffaw in Track 1, “Rebel Without a Cause,” to the anxious buzzing of bees that morph into forlorn hoot owls — almost every quirky sound voiced by Haden herself — as “Hand Covers Bruise” (The Social Network), descends into “This Is Not America” (The Falcon and the Snowman), the record’s final — and decidedly not whimsical — cut.

For one last hit of fancy, watch the YouTube stream of this album, after you’ve listened to the copy you just bought.


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