Sleeper release of the year? Petra Haden + Miss Murgatroid?

One of the great sleeper release of 2008 is the Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden “Hearts & Daggers” – an album of pocket symphonies – cinematic compositions rendered in a charming, homespun manner on violin, accordion and dulcet vocals.

How many claims to fame does any one person really need? In Petra Haden’s case, you can start with her father, legendary bassist Charlie Haden, and continue with her stints in that dog., the Rentals, and the Decemberists, among other notable acts, right on through her other works (session, solo, or otherwise) including her awesomely virtuosic a cappella recreation of The Who Sell Out. Somewhere down the line of Haden’s accomplishments was her 1999 collaboration with accordionist/ photographer Alicia J. Rose, aka Miss Murgatroid, with whom she released the overlooked and/or forgotten Bella Neurox, a disc of accordion, vocals, and violins tailor made for the twee, quirky, and weird. And now, nearly 10 years later, Petra Haden and Miss Murgatroid have returned in tandem with a sequel, Hearts & Daggers.

Christine Shield’s album art doesn’t exactly raise expectations for the disc. It’s a panoramic depiction of a sort of Children’s Crusade in retreat, dejected kiddies following a trail of discarded crowns and scepters away from a burning castle, with cute little cats cuddling by their feet. It’s a red flag warning that Hearts & Daggers may basically be the musical equivalent of just that sort of notebook doodle, the soundtrack to a dramatic play put on by precocious kids that, whether by accident or intent, dips deep into the well of ancient madrigals and other Renaissance Faire fare.

Except that against all odds, the results aren’t nearly as precious as that description might make them appear. For starters, Miss Murgatroid and Haden are hardly show-boaters, preferring to enlist the more understated characters of their respective chosen instruments. Both players also have a keen ear for evocative arrangements that toe the subtle line between song and curious assemblage. The way the pair approach “Fade Away”, for example, is as equal parts shanty, pop tune, and Laurie Anderson-style minimalist deconstruction. Even if it lacks the compelling visual counterpart it so clearly demands (in the form of, say, a modern dance piece or a pretentious student film), it’s still a winning composition. Besides, isn’t that what imaginations are for?

Elsewhere, “Baroque Lullaby” toys seamlessly with both classical and folk idioms, a sweet audio frolic akin to such playful chamber groups as the Penguin Café Orchestra but minus the barrier of aloof intellectual distance, while “See Me See Me” and “Something’s Wrong” similarly straddle the difference between pop and Pops (in the orchestral sense). “Ballad for Anne Bonney” and “Another Day” show off such a firm grasp of the power of contrasting tones and complementary harmonic motifs that they further belie any lingering suspicion that Hearts & Daggers is some sort of navel-gazing frivolity.

No, what makes the disc feel so special despite its relative insignificance is the seriousness with which Haden and Rose take these mini-symphonies, each of which resonates with its own distinct identity despite sharing the same (very) few ingredients. There’s a simplicity and innocence at work here that smartly surmounts whimsy to achieve something harder to pin down. Essential? No. Vital? Hardly. But no doubt were you to come across the two blissfully performing at a subway stop, you’d gladly toss a few bucks into the hat and ride home happy and content with the decision as you hum to yourself a few lingering, mysterious melodies.

– Joshua Klein/Pitchforkmedia.com 11/3

The second collaborative album between Miss Murgatroid and Petra Haden, following some years after Bella Neurox, finds the two performers’ aesthetics just as intriguingly in tune with each other as before — it’s not too much to say that for all the deserved attention both have received for their individual work, their collaborations take them to a spot they might not have found on their own. Hearts and Daggers isn’t just a matter of blending styles and voices — as the sweeping drone-then-exultant Arabian pop hints of the opening “We Formulate” shows, it’s the whole package, an instant setting of mood that lets strings and accordion combine and recombine. This same sense of the familiar and the proudly artistic defines all of Hearts and Daggers, with Murgatroid’s and Haden’s singing often wordless, relying on the timber of their voices, sometimes in harmony but more often playing against each other, much like their respective instruments, to suggest moods rather than dictate them through specific word choices. “See Me See Me” is a stellar example of this, the music moving from gently tense to calm and then sweetly playful, their vocals cascading back and forth over the music before switching back to the more tightly wound feeling once more. As a result, though, when they do switch to straightforward lyrics, as they suddenly do in “Fade Away” before shifting to a gorgeous Beach Boys-style descending melodic collage, or right from the start with “Something’s Wrong,” Murgatroid’s one solo writing credit on the album, the feeling is almost one of shock. Ned Raggett/Allmusic.com

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 timber 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. Jen Kelly/Blurt-online.com October update

.For “Rambling Boy,” which includes references obvious and obscure to his childhood influences, the 71-year-old Mr. Haden is united with another generation of the Haden Family: his triplets, Rachel, Petra and Tanya; son, Josh; and wife, Ruth Cameron. They’re bolstered by an impressive collection of friends, including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Mark Fain, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Bryan Sutton — surely the country equivalent of the jazz musicians with whom Mr. Haden usually keeps company.

.”I thought originally it was going to be the kids with my dad,” Petra Haden told me when we met in New York. “But it turned into one big party.”

.”Ruth wanted everybody to be together,” said Mr. Haden, whose four children were joined by his brothers and sisters. “At some point, we were sitting in mom’s cabin and Ruth said, ‘Why don’t you sing something?’ We hadn’t sung in decades.”

The kids joined in. “Josh and the girls were experimenting. They hadn’t sung with me before,” he recalled. “It really sounded great.”

As well it might have. All the Hadens are musical. Tanya is a cellist and vocalist, Josh leads the band Spain, and Rachel played bass with Todd Rundgren and sang with Beck. Petra, who’s played violin with the Foo Fighters, has recorded several wonderfully idiosyncratic vocal albums, including a version of the Who’s “The Who Sell Out” in which she sings every sound. Her latest is “Hearts & Daggers” (FU:M) by Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden, her two-person project with accordionist and singer Alicia Rose.

. Fans of “Beyond the Missouri Sky” will love the version of “The Fields of Athenry” on “Rambling Boy,” in which Petra’s voice gives way to a skittish, dazzling solo by Mr. Metheny.

.The triplets’ sweet harmonies are featured on “Voice From on High,” “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Seven Year Blues.” “I hadn’t sung with my sisters in so long,” Petra said. “When we sang together, we were really locked in. It was really relaxed. Rather than having really strict rehearsals, we just watched my dad directing everybody. He had the vision. He said, ‘I’m getting the best players’ — and here comes Bruce Hornsby and Pat Metheny, who’s my favorite guitarist.”

Petra remembers her father’s stories about the country legends he met as a boy. “He would always refer to Mother Maybelle. She really meant something to him. He really has a deep connection to this music.” As a tribute, guitarist Bryan Sutton plays Carter’s introduction almost note for note on “The Wildwood Flower.”…Jim Fusilli/Wall Street Journal 9/23/08

Petra Haden’s work – whether with That Dog, solo, or in collaboration – is marked by an idiosyncratic approach to seemingly normal pop music forms. In 2003, she released an eponymously titled collaborative effort with guitarist Bill Frisell that consisted of ethereal reworkings of a variety of pop and rock songs from the likes of the Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Tom Waits and Henry Mancini. While neither artist’s capabilities were being used to their fullest, the two combined for some truly beautiful moments. In 2005, Haden dropped an astounding acapella version of The Who Sell Out; the release was something of a music parlor trick, but it was also one of the more dexterous achievements by a human voice in the pop realm.

For Hearts & Daggers, Haden has re-teamed with accordion player Miss Murgatroid (a.k.a. Alicia Rose), with whom she first worked on 1999’s Bella Neurox. Hearts & Daggers is similar to Haden’s other works with it’s a mercurial mix of neo-classical tendencies, experimentalism, and pure pop concessions. The aforementioned albums, though accomplished and quite lovely, had a playfulness that occasionally bordered on the ironic. While there is lightness to certain tracks here, there’s an almost sacred feeling as well. Opening track “We Formulate” is a shimmering incantation that puts Haden’s beautiful moans front and center, while her violin and Rose’s accordion stab at the empty spaces in between. It’s startling and then quickly hypnotic. “Hummingbird” follows with an equally mesmerizing tone, yet also contains passages of brisk drama and activity.

Hearts & Daggers, in general, plays like a series of film scores. On a surface level one can attribute this to the album being mostly instrumental (or at least heavily wordless), but it works on a deeper level, too. Each piece contains its own dramatic weight and musical themes, and plays like an accompaniment to its own mini-narrative passage – each evoking distinctive images and emotions. “Baroque Lullaby” is perhaps the most instantly appealing piece, with its sprightly Gershwin-esque melody, and like almost every track here, it allows the listener to create an entire drama in just over four minutes. (Mine, for example, took place in the deep south, involved an antique motor car, and did not end in tragedy).

While many of these touchstones may sound familiar – neo-classicalisms, film scores, classic pop and contemporary composition – in reality Hearts & Daggers is a work of the most fantastic sort of creativity. Driven equally by Haden’s unique approach to the violin, one that is technically accomplished but not beholden to any sort of traditionalism, and Miss Mergatroid’s accordion, at once percolating and droning, this is an album that exists in its own magical aesthetic realm, or better yet an infinite number of them all at once. Nate Knaebel Dustedmagazine.com 9/17

Violinist-vocalist Petra Haden (daughter of legendary jazz bassist Charlie) teams up with accordionist Miss Murgatroid (née Alicia Rose), and it turns out to be far from the dry, conservatory exercise you’d expect. This is cutting-edge stuff: symphonic lushness and dreamy, vocals not too distant from the soundscapes of Sigur Rós, balanced by a dangerous avant-garde lurch that will please fans of such composers as Tom Waits, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson.

Both artists maintain busy solo recording careers, have played with several groups and collaborated separately with such artists as Bill Frisell, John Fahey, Victoria Williams, Negativland, the Twilight Singers and Boy Eats Drum Machine, among many others. This is their first album of new material together since Bella Neurox in 1999.

The harmony vocals–full of glittering facets that reveal more with each subsequent listening–are primarily wordless. At least until the third track, “Fade Away,” that is. A personal relationship suffers from emotional dislocation as Haden sings, “Every time you are here, you’re not here, so you fade away.” According to press releases, mutual heartache fuels many of these compositions, and it’s proven out in the recitation that accompanies “Something’s Wrong.”

Especially charming is the near-orchestral depth of “Baroque Lullaby” and “Sleeper,” in which Haden builds rich cloud banks of strings, pushing melodies that recall the earliest chamber-pop experiments of Cat Stevens. Against this, Murgatroid’s accordion sighs and moans like a magnificent, throaty pipe organ. Ears weary of the tropes of rock and pop will find new listening adventures here. Gene Armstrong/Tucson Weekly 9/18

Haden & Murgatroid whip up quite the flutter & wow on Hearts & Daggers (File Under: Music). That they do so using accordion, violin, viola and exquisite, frequently wordless human voices is quite the feat, made all the more impressive considering one never notices these seeming limitations – a trait both ladies have shown throughout their career, taking misunderstood or maligned elements and making them twinkle with fresh light. Dancing on lithe, classically trained toes, wearing threadbare rock ‘n’ roll rags, the pair choreograph a curious, oddly beautiful journey through sound that rewards one’s patience and openness to non-standard modes of expression. Full of heartache (both expressed and implied) and fragmented conjecture, Hearts & Daggers warms one like sunlight slowly pulling our body from deep shade, inching up our trunk with turtle steadiness. This could appeal to lonely librarians and Brandenburg intimates with equal force, the new fave of Belle and Sebastian cardingers and folks who wouldn’t rock to save their lives. It is, for lack of a better phrase, its own thing, and as such speaks a tongue outside the usual Rosetta Stone Dennis Cook/Jambase.com 9/2

When American pop music shattered on the rocky shore of the 1990s, a thousand shards flew in every direction. Some have lamented the fragmentation, not to mention the difficulty with selling recordings in this climate. Other musicians have seen the newly flattened music market as a do-it-yourself opportunity, and they’ve created idiosyncratic art not designed for mass consumption. Thus, the proliferation of ways for the industry to put the prefixes “indie” and “alt” in front of genre names. Except for Coldplay and Kayne West, almost everything’s a little “indie” these days, right?

And certainly the accordionist Miss Murgatroid (actually, photographer Alicia Rose) and the singer/string player Petra Haden (daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden) qualify. The duo recorded together once before (1999’s Bella Neurox), creating a series of overdubbed mini-symphonies weaving together Miss M’s accordion, Haden’s violin and viola, and their singing. Almost a decade later, they’re back at it, and the results are sophisticated, anachronistic, naïve, lush, and minimalist-a jumble of impulses that aren’t easily defined. Not rock, not folk, not jazz, not classical. This, for sure: fascinating.

Some background: Rose seems to be a true polymath-an art photographer, a music booker for clubs, a composer, and a singular accordionist who manages to take the instrument out of its typical awkward style and impose it on a different kind of music. Haden is very nearly as eclectic, playing and singing with indie-rockers, the Decemberists, with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, with her own rock band “that dog”, with Sean Lennon, Green Day, and Victoria Williams, and also with herself, most notably on her complete a cappella remake of the rock album The Who Sell Out. Together, the duo crafts otherworldly music that seems to derive from a free-floating logic all its own. More than anything, these pieces of music strike me as classical in arrangement and approach-they’re abstract, and unlikely to break down into obvious verses and choruses. Yet they move with the simplicity and tools of rock music-based on riffs, grooves, textures, and elements of distortion.

“Baroque Lullaby” certainly seems to invoke the classical tradition. Miss M’s accordion sets a bouncy-happy groove over which Haden dubs a series of string parts that enhance the cheeriness with a dash of hill music. These episodes of cheer are, however, contrasted with brief suspensions of the rhythm, during which Haden’s vocals underpin the tune with a sad dreaminess. There is nothing “baroque” about it. Indeed, it is a tone poem with two contrasting themes, but it could function as a kind of lullaby. Most of the compositions (credited, largely, to both performers together) contain no words, using the voices as additional instruments rather than as a featured “lead.” In most cases, the arrangements blend the three elements-accordion, strings, and vocals-so deftly that you lose the sense of distinction between them. “Hummingbird” is a good example of how this orchestral effect is achieved. The initial two-chord vamp is set up on squeezebox, but there is a subtle underpinning of plucked strings. Several seconds in, the bowed strings enter, overdubbed violins and violas simulating a fairly large section, which are given a short spot without the accordion rhythm. Then, the voices enter in quiet, but beautiful counterpoint-six, seven?-but as accompaniment rather than melody at first. Eventually the voices rise to the top of the arrangement, only to have the suspended string passage return. This sequence repeats with variations, the last of which pushes the singing into a garbled shout before the strings snap it off quickly. It truly seems like a three-minute symphony.

A couple of songs use brief passages containing words. “Fade Away” contains a complexly rhythmic vocal arrangement based around breath-like staccato notes (“Huh-huh-huh-huh … Huh-huh-huh-huh”) that could have come from a Steve Reich work. But when the pulse drops, the two voices intertwine in two overdubbed choruses: “Every time you walk near, you’re not here. So you fade away.” Then: “In the time I was here, it was clear, I would fade away.” “Something’s Wrong” seems to contain muted words in a few spots, but then a true lead emerges toward the end in a short melody that sounds Beatles-y-a heart given and broken. “See Me See Me”, and a few others, contain shadowy pronunciations of the song titles amidst the vocalizing.

There are also tracks that include percussive or recorded sounds. “Ballad for Anne Bonney” begins with the crash of a thunderstorm without obvious explanation-an ominous start to a song that ventures in many directions. “We Formulate” features a subtle percussive underpinning of shaker, and a digital effect that sounds like a tuned talking-drum creating a bass line. It’s well done, as are the moments when the singing mimics the percussion in polyrhythm. “Another Day” sounds more overtly modern, with a chittering techno groove blending with some lovely arpeggiated violin. There is even what could pass as a kind of rock or jazz-styled solo, with Haden (or is it Miss M’s processed squeezebox?) laying out something that would have been not entirely alien to Jimi Hendrix.

Hearts and Daggers is an enchanting set-a dreamy movie in music, a set of tone poems made out of pop music but made by unlikely instruments, a collection of pocket symphonies with surprising beauty. This is music that surprises without grating, that spins around your head without being easy to categorize. Made by musicians happy to be on the experimental edge, Hearts and Daggers manages to be less avant-garde than ingenious. Less played than conjured, the music of Petra Haden and Miss Murgatroid is a pleasant dream. Will Layman/Popmatters.com 8/15

Audio of cover on NPR.org’s “All Songs Considered”

http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=93434420&m=93419095

As a former member of the rock group that dog, singer and violinist Petra Haden remembers one time when it was unfashionable to play violin at the height of alternative music’s popularity in the ’90s. She once had stuff like food thrown at her when that dog was opening for another band onstage.
“Someone in the audience [was] like, ‘More guitar! We don’t need violin!'” Haden tells Spinner. “But then I got over it after a while. I was like, ‘Screw you, I’m gonna keep playing the violin.’ That’s when I started noticing more violins in rock bands — David Mathews Band, the Dixie Chicks — [and] I felt more positive. ”
The violinist, who is the daughter of renowned jazz bassist Charlie Haden, has since become a solo artist and a collaborator with the Decemberists, Beck, Bill Frisell and many other musicians. Her latest album is ‘Hearts & Daggers,’ her second project with accordionist and vocalist Miss Murgatroid (aka Alicia J. Rose). Featuring violin, viola, accordion and voices, ‘Hearts & Daggers’ is an ethereal-sounding work that shows some classical and avant-garde influences.
“I think that’s why I like it so much,” Haden says, “because you can’t really classify it. It’s open to interpretation. It’s definitely not country.”
Rose, who has known Haden since the mid ’90s, describes ‘Hearts & Daggers’ as a “record without a genre.” “It is filled with emotion and drama,” she says, “even though it might be more abstract to the listener than it was to us. It was extremely powerful to have made this record. I feel like it took a lot out of us. ”
‘Hearts & Daggers’ is the first new release in nine years from Rose and Haden since their previous effort Bella Neurox. At the time it was a one-off project, but it took the encouragement of a fan to convince the two musicians to work together again. “Alicia was just so swamped with her life,” Haden explains, “and I was swamped with mine, that it ended up being now. ”
For her own work, in addition to playing the violin, Haden also uses her voice to imitate the sounds of various instruments. “When my dad bought me a four-track for my birthday,” she says, “I experimented with multitracking my voice. Then I was obsessed with it and wrote little melodies everyday on my four-track.”
She put her voice to great effect on her 2005 a cappella interpretation of the Who’s 1967 album ‘The Who Sell Out.’ “Pete Townshend heard it,” Haden says. “Before I knew it I got to see the Who play in New York. It was such a cool experience.” She has also recorded Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin” a cappella, even nailing down Neal Schon’s spiraling guitar playing on the latter song. (Both tunes can be found on her MySpace page).
“I believe in Petra as a completely phenomenal musician and artist,” Rose says. “She doesn’t sit down and write little tunes. Most of the time it’s [her] modifying and reinterpreting other people’s music, which she is amazing at.”
Having recorded with her father and her siblings Rachel, Tanya and Josh for the first time together on an album of country songs, Haden is working on an a capella project of movie themes, including one from ‘Superman.’ “I’m singing all the strings and the horns,” she says. “I’m enjoying myself a lot. Funny isn’t the actually the word. For me, it’s mind-blowing.” David Chiu/Spinner.com 8/12

It’s been nine years since Bella Neurox, the last collaboration between violin virtuoso Petra Haden and accordionist Miss Murgatroid (a.k.a. Alicia J. Rose). In that time, Haden suffered a car wreck, wound up in a coma, and was the beneficiary of a series of star-studded aid concerts. Now, with the help of an anonymous benefactor she’s finally reunited with buddy Rose for Hearts & Daggers. Not discounting Haden’s misfortunate, the duo can take comfort in the fact that during all that time, there was never much danger of another violin/accordion combo coming along to supplant them. It’s a niche they pretty much have locked up.

It helps that Rose and Haden exist so firmly in world of their own, stuffed with Baroque dramas and pirate queens and quaint Italian boat rides. Their versatility and inventiveness allow them to conjure up nearly anything they fancy, with Haden’s strings flowing from Hitchcockian staccato to an autumnal richness those indie rock amateurs can only dream about. Rose’s accordion is harder to pin down, sometimes conjuring up a good-hearted ethnic European soup, sometimes a witchier brew. Topping it all off are the vocals, seamless but surprisingly poppy, like a girl group gone medieval.
Two of the tracks experiment with beats, always a risky proposition, and “Another Day,” in particular, comes closest to ambient, Robert Miles-style movie-soundtrack nonsense. It isn’t necessarily a no-no, but with so much other raw ore to work with, Rose and Haden shouldn’t risk getting lost in the electronic muddle. Claire Shefchick BeyondRacemazine.com 8/6/08

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