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Immune to Hyperbole – Bar/None’s Reissues of Petra Haden’s “Imaginaryland” and “Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out”

Petra Haden
Imaginaryland / Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out

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Maybe it’s from turning 30 and the attendant wistful, reflective-but-proud sense of celebration that goes with it, but Bar/None has been on a bit of a reissue tear lately, from Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook a couple years back to the ongoing Feelies spree and now here they come making freshly available on vinyl for the first time a pair of albums from Petra Haden, an artist for whom the terms ‘daringly original’ and ‘fearlessly idiosyncratic’ could well have been coined. At the prospect of a solo effort from one of the set of triplet daughters fathered by jazz bass legend Charlie Haden (musicians Rachel and Tanya round out the trio), any number of presumed adjectives were likely bandied about: inventive, assured, virtuosic, precocious (she was 24 when debut Imaginaryland came out), and perhaps, due her lineage, groundbreaking and/or breathtaking. All understandable, of course, and yet few could have predicted just how accurate those words would be nor the form the songs at which they would be directed would take. Sure, she’d acquitted herself well in acclaimed power pop punk outfit That Dog but little to nothing in that short shot of major label renown could prepare one for Imaginaryland. I mean, think of it: a largely a cappella album featuring eleven original compositions and two covers, one of which is a version of Enya’s “Watermark” with an overlay of mandolins that, by the way, is beautiful in all its sparse delicacy but anyway who would do that? This was 1996, for fuck’s sake, the year of Sublime Oasis Bush Everclear Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden among countless other guitar-centric recasts. In the out’n’out oddity stakes only Radiohead might have compared and even they in their Kid A days (never mind OK Computer which would appear a year after Imaginaryland) would never summon the strength to be this singularly headstrong. But, then again, the words ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘breathtaking’ do make an appearance up above and this is Charlie Haden’s daughter we’re talking about but regardless, looking back, there’s no doubt that this was sheer artistic will written with a diamond-tipped quill. Yet it was also, when seen from an insider context, not a total surprise. Still daring, yes, but not wholly unexpected had one been witness to Petra’s path to becoming a musician.

Though not overtly shepherded toward music despite her inborn environment, seeing street performers at the age of eight flipped the switch and off Petra went, taking up the violin at first which led to other instruments which no doubt would have alone provided enough practical grounding to found a future in the musical arts but no, she had to take it further, developing an innate – some might say uncanny – ability to vocally mimic the sounds she was making, the sounds she was hearing, which, in tandem with the tidy tranche of arrangement skills she was natural heir to, led, via a wildly adventurous logic, to a project like Imaginaryland and, nine years later, the for obvious reasons better-known Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. In what has to be considered a mark of Ms Haden’s vision and the self-belief to carry it through not once but twice, the ultimate effect listening to either of these albums front to back is one of content conquering method, the startling novelty of the ‘how’ being wholly overwhelmed by the ‘what.’

Even as it’s indeed overshadowed by its successor for reasons beyond the latter’s built-in notoriety, Imaginaryland is no junior effort. Reflecting its then-unique and uniquely untested methodology, as well the artist’s youth and still-unfolding confidence, the record, to be truthful, is more modest of dynamic and a bit shier in execution compared to the later record but due these (very) relative limitations it is in many ways the bolder, more experimental of the two. Whether ascribed to it being the first or the predominance of original material – likely both – it’s nonetheless the case that Imaginaryland shines with a quietly bedazzling, naif-like appeal that goes unmatched by, well, just about anything, including …Sell Out.


Initially the album, due the matter-of-fact rhythm and unembellished harmonies of first track “Look Both Ways Before You Cross,” might invite comparison to Laurie Anderson but quite quickly Imaginaryland becomes much more than what might be considered the sum of its limited parts and in the process, with all due modesty, swamps one’s comparative points of reference. The keys to solo a cappella, aside from staying in, um, key, itself a challenge of focus and pitch, are a command of emphases and a laser-like precision, nowhere more apparent than on follow-up track “Cuckoo Clock,” where the presumed simplicity of its subject matter is met and outdone by a meticulous complexity akin to, yes, a Swiss watch. Beginning unassumingly enough with a 2-note mid-register base phrase overlaid by the expected repeat of the word ‘cuckoo’ and accompanied by a clicking tongue second hand, soon enough the layers are slyly piled on. First a cello vocal, replaced as the frame moves on by a violin vocal and oh yeah let’s not forget the lowing, bassoonish bass notes humming underneath. The album’s longest, purely a cappella track (technically there’s a toy keyboard of some sort twinkling under the mix toward the end but it barely figures), it could well be argued that it sets the standard for the rest of its mates on Imaginaryland such as the seriously playful take on “Bach Prelude No 2 in C Minor” (‘for a well tempered voice’ it says parenthetically), the accretive unpacking of “How Are You?,” the capering angel chorus of “Il Solitario” or the otherworldly soundscape “Moonmilk” in which it’s virtually impossible to not get delightfully lost in the giddy overlappingness of it all (how many layers? I lost count at six). Add in the instrumental-only passages – “Watermark,” the eerie acoustic accuracy of violins on “Song For The Whales” and the droning of plucked harmonics that is “Richard” (“Red” straddles the separation by sawing some dramatic cello flourishes over the vox) – and you have a strikingly odd but immediate album that wasn’t so much before its – or any – time as simply outside of it. Inevitably, no surprise, the same holds true for its more lauded other half.

One unmissable and vibrantly self-evident truth the instant needle hits groove on Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out is the amount of project-filled time that has elapsed since the debut. Packed and fitted with a wealth of greater studio experience – records with Miss Murgatroid and Bill Frisell, one more That Dog album – and now in her mid-30’s, Ms Haden’s voice, in all its permutations both literal and figurative, is bolder, almost flagrantly more assured. From the outset – the days-of-the-week radio jingle the record opens with – the relative richness of this venture rather zooms into existence, every blessed nuance – the melded drum and brass flourishes, the flattened synthy echo of the (multi-tracked) vocal – filling your ears with a brash presence before fading to the busy bash of brilliance that is “Armenia City In The Sky,” a track that, should you need reminding, has to count among Townshend’s catchiest three minutes, a fact that Haden’s rendering will make abundantly clear as it swoops and batters its way through the song’s multiple layers of 1967-era popsike experimentation. I’d use the term ‘tour de force’ because it is and unqualifiedly so but how unfair would that be to the dozen tracks that follow, none of which pale nor particularly exceed the joy and wonder inherent in “Armenia.” Consider the various (very British) voices and blatty trumpet et al on “Heinz Baked Beans,” the way the seemingly basic, Daltrey-centered “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand” still has a zillion parts to consider, the subtle echoing of “Tattoo,” the muscular jangle that’s the (surprisingly delicate) backbone of transcendental classic “I Can See For Miles,” its payoff hook just as shiver-inducing here as on the timeless original, the bass and tambourine intro of “I Can’t Reach You,” or how ill-named the track “Relax” must have seemed given its multitude of elements – Hammond B-3, crunchy electric rhythm part plus a scything lead, electric piano hidden deep in the mix, etc etc – then marvel at how intrepidly Haden not only tackles all this with an implacably steady hand (er..voice) but if anything brings an enhanced clarity to cuts that may have passed many of us by. And therein the beauty of this project.


Whereas, to a certain extent, we have Mike Watt to thank for giving Petra a TASCAM 844 Portastudio 8-track with the Who album occupying one track and the other seven left empty to do with what she would, it’s how and with what the artist Petra Haden ultimately filled those available tracks that most merits our gratitude. Lest one think that these are mere apings, it’s important to keep in mind that regardless of the painstaking attention to detail, these are readings, renderings, interpretations, however clever, however masterful. This means things like the guitar part on “Shaky Hand,” for instance, is repped with basic ‘dun d-dun‘ syllables because not even the world’s most skilled parrot could accurately reproduce that sound but in the context of this project those decisions are so well- and deeply-considered as to surpass simply solid and become immaculate. And anyway, as it happens, it’s not infrequent that the vocalizations are inventively convincing and complete enough to astound (I beg of you to partake of the coda on Ms Haden’s treatment of “Rael” if any doubts linger, a segment that on the original arguably pre-figures Quadrophenia – the rolling wave-crashing rhythm section, that chimey, Townshend-specific, story-telling chording, the yearning pathos in Daltrey’s voice – and that here is covered by a palimpsest of harmonized vocal effects that would make any band of doo-wop street corner singers drop their jaws in synchronized awe). All of which is to say that anyone that thinks this is simply some elaborate parlor trick can go ahead and collect their coat and hat right now. It is instead an insanely challenging prospect brought to lucent, transformative fruition and nothing less, an achievement that, in the end, is immune to hyperbole.