I almost forgot that I still wrote for Blurt, but yesterday, two vintage reviews saw the light of day at the online site. (In fairness, I think they went into the digital magazine a few weeks ago.) One is a characteristically odd, expectation-confounding new album from Neil Michael Hagerty...no bass, no drums, mostly circus organ...and another is an also non-conventional but quite lovely duet between Miss Murgatroid and Petra Haden.
Neither one of them is giving away any mp3s, and Murgatroid/Hayden don't even have a Myspace...sorry.
And now for something completely different.
Neil Michael Hagerty has never been content staying in any sort of niche, jettisoning band members, musical styles and even his incendiary guitar with hardly a shrug. With Earth Junk, his tenth album under the Howling Hex name, Hagerty starts over again, with an entirely new band. He's also got an unrecognizable sound that is grounded more in 1960s psych than blues rock.
Royal Trux die-hards beware: there are no drums at all on this album, very little bass and less than usual guitar. Mostly, in fact, the songs are built around keyboards, a Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes manned by new recruit Sweney Tidball. That gives early-album forays like "Big Chief with Big Wheel" a damaged carnival vibe, its calliope run amok among brightly colored nightmares. The mojo works best when it's shot through with guitar-splintered darkness, as on "Sundays Are Ruined Again," "Contraband & Betrayal" and particularly, "Annie Get Redzy." Singer Eleanor Whitmore tips the balance too far into Teletubby-land, her too-sweet alto like a kindergarten teacher strung out but trying to stay positive.
Think of Earth Junk as Hagerty's Satanic Majesties, a day-glo journey away from the twisted blues guitar hooks we all expect from him. Hagerty could never be less than fascinating, but this feels like a detour... even for such a trickster.
Standout Tracks: "Annie Get Redzy," "Contraband & Betrayal" JENNIFER KELLY
Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden
Hearts & Daggers
Accordion, violin and voice, all pitched at their most unearthly, twine and curl together in nine extraordinary compositions here. In this second record together, accordionist/singer Miss Murgatroid (Alicia J. Rose) and violin-and-vocalist Petra Haden build mirage-like musical landscapes that flit from torch jazz to periwigged minuet to gypsy campfire songs. The vocals take center stage, building perhaps on Petra Haden's experiments with a capella arrangements (she last recorded The Who Sell Out entirely by herself and without instruments). They sound, for the most part, like anything but voices, billowing in wordless clouds, punching staccato blots of rhythm, sliding and scatting and executing the most arcane harmonies and counterparts.
The main instruments share timbre with the two women's voices, the accordion as rich and tremulous as an alto singer, the violin as keening and high as a clear soprano. There are no sharp edges, then, in these collaborations. You listen to the accordion sometimes, thinking it is a voice, the voices wondering how they morphed from strings. It helps, perhaps, that there very few words. In "Fade Away", a shard of oblique poetry emerges in slouchy jazz singer phrases, and in Middle Eastern "We Formulate" you can just discern the title phrase among arabesques of non-verbal tone.
But the best cuts, perhaps, are nonlinear and abstract. "Sleeper" is a lucid dream in sound, serene, motionless and full of slow blossoming notes. You can picture Rose compressing her accordion with infinite patience, Haden, likewise, drawing her bow in slow motion across the strings. A bit of Jerome Kern's "Summertime" in the violin nudges us into alertness at the end of the song, but up to that point, it's been like a trance: odd, lovely and unforgettable.
Standout Tracks: "Fade Away", "Sleeper", "We Formulate" JENNIFER KELLY