On my old web site (in the pre-blog days) I had a page with brief reviews of various books and music. Now that my blog is up and (sort of) working I’ve decided to revive that practice. For my first entry I’ve chosen Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out.
I found out about this album from a story in the Washington Post, and was intrigued enough to check it out. As it happens I’d never bought or heard the original version of The Who Sell Out, so except for “I Can See for Miles and Miles” I was hearing every song for the first time. And there are some excellent songs on the album, of which my favorite at the moment is “I Can’t Reach You.”
As an a cappella work I thought this was superior to Björk’s Medulla; I’m pretty fond of Björk’s work, and have almost all of her albums, but to be honest I thought Medulla was too much of a muchness—Björk’s singing and songwriting are idiosyncratic enough already, and using conventional instrumentation (and I’d count even the music boxes and “glitch” of Vespertine as conventional in this context) gives listeners some familarity to smooth their path into the songs.
I also disagree with the customer reviews on Amazon that complain about the lack of polish in Haden’s interpretation, as if vocal perfection and seamless production were the goal. That’s not the goal at all—quite the opposite. As Dave Hickey notes in his book Air Guitar, contrasting jazz and rock, “Both . . . make art that succeeds by failing, but each exploits failure in different ways.” Jazz ensembles strive for improvisation but ultimately have to come back to the underlying song, with someone always having to “hold onto the wire.” Rock bands strive to play together (“just this once, in tune and on the beat”) but can’t quite manage it.
What I like about Petra Haden’s album is its informality and occasional outright goofiness, and its general air of having been recorded as a lark (which indeed it was), all of which make the album’s many moments of spontaneous joy and beauty stand out all the more strongly.