Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden - "We Formulate" (Hearts & Daggers)
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.