Petra Haden's new album is one heck of a parlor trick. Using just her voice — words and bah-rumps and whatever weirdness passes through her lips — she re-creates famous movie scores: Rebel Without a Cause, A Fistful of Dollars, Goldfinger. For Psycho, she just about passes out mimicking those persistent dagger strings.
I should say up front that a little of Petra Goes to the Movies goes a looong way. Although this is a cappella singing in its most adventurous form, let's just say if this were spinning at a party, I'd give it about 20 minutes before I found another party. In 2005, she released Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, in which Pete, Roger & Co. all resided in her tricks-aplenty larynx. That record was more of a crowd-pleaser; it also rocked hard.
Nevertheless, Haden, a 41-year-old indie darling who's worked with everyone from the Decemberists to Beck to the Foo Fighters, is a movie junkie. And that pure cinematic joy is evident throughout this meticulously crafted effort, especially on such grandiose works as John Williams' Superman Theme, which takes the robust art of humming in the shower to new shampoo-flinging levels. It's pretty darn adorable. Just try to keep up.
Not all of the singer's choices are well-known: One of the sweetest picks, and performances, is My Bodyguard, Dave Grusin's composition from the 1980 teen flick starring Chris Makepeace and Matt Dillon. That one takes me back, the music's puckish autumnal melody as comforting as falling leaves and school-bus mornings. A hipper, more modern selection is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Hand Covers Bruise, from The Social Network, a buzzing, contemplative work with an unsettling drone underneath a casual six-note refrain. Both of those tracks are reminiscent of '60s cocktail jazz, accompaniment perhaps for Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass.
Haden mixes up the "instrumentals" (for lack of a better word) with a few lyrical flourishes. Her father, legendary bassist Charlie Haden, and guitarist Bill Frisell lay the groundwork for the haunting This Is Not America, from The Falcon and the Snowman, a song written by David Bowie, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. Frisell also plays on It Might Be You, the satisfyingly saccharine ballad from Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie; Haden's "natural" voice, it turns out, is a tender coo.
The oft-covered Calling You, from Baghdad Cafe, is a straight ready-for-radio weeper, complete with Haden's torchy reading and a chilly piano line from jazz notable Brad Mehldau. All of these cuts are relatively traditional, and much more amenable to repeat listens.
I've seen enough episodes of Glee to know that the Dalton Academy Warblers are hunky practitioners of vocal gymnastics; thus if you're a fan of the TV show, you might very well dig this, too. But Haden longs to challenge, both herself and the listener. So let it be known that Katy Perry's Teenage Dream is one thing; the blaring, unsettling cacophony of God's Lonely Man from Martin Scorsese's blood-soaked Taxi Driver is another.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]