It’s difficult to put a label on vocalist/violinist Petra Haden. She’s not quite a typical rock singer and lacks the vocal command to front a band. She doesn’t fall in the idiom of jazz and is a little too unpolished. She doesn’t fit much into any category. Somewhat of an anomaly among singers, her smooth wholesome voice falls more along the lines of a non-descript Norah Jones or Joni Mitchell. Haden is more an innocent voice waiting to be hurt. Guitarist Bill Frisell, known for his signature ambiance, also is no stranger to being out of place. Frisell has carved a niche for himself as a personality, displaying a colorful style that stands on its own merit. On paper, the project seems perfect: It is an album of duets that brings the sweetness of Haden together with Frisell’s delicate backdrops. In reality, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell is as mellow as they come, sometimes captivating in its sincerity, but at other times misguided.
The potential inherent in the collaboration, for one thing, is there. This project wasn’t a bad idea, and if there is one guitarist who could work well for Haden, it’s Frisell. It’s obvious that both musicians enjoy recording with each other and have a good rapport. Where the album falters is mainly in the material. Like so many “jazz” albums today, Petra Haden utilizes songs taken from the pop world. Many artists, to their credit, have made it work. Brad Mehldau made a deserving association with Radiohead. The Bad Plus put out a killer version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cassandra Wilson did it, Don Byron, Jimmy Smith covered The Stones and heaven knows how many times “Blackbird” has been recorded. But this album contains a distracting number of pop covers that just sound flat.
The album opener, the Elliott Smith-penned “Satellite,” recalls why Smith was such a force. The draw of the song is, in large part, due to Smith’s vulnerability. Haden beautifies the tune, making it polished. The overall effect is that the intimate sadness of the original is somewhat lost. The Foo Fighters “Floaty” almost works, but misses the edge of the original. Same with Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Stevie Wonder’s outdated “I Believe.”
The album does shine, however, when Haden is given room to meditate. On the traditional Tuvan tune “Bai-la Taigam,” the pure beauty of Frisell’s guitar and Haden’s floating melodies demonstrate that sometimes, at their best, they’ve got something special. The tender “Moon River” and elegant “When You Wish Upon a Star” are similarly illuminating.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the album comes at the conclusion. Frisell’s “Throughout” is a study of sound with subtle chord changes complemented by Haden’s immaculate harmonies. If one track could represent what this album could have been, this is it. If the gods of music come through, maybe one day we’ll get to hear an album more along these lines coming from the two. A tapestry of intimate musings that, like Haden and Frisell, dismiss categorization.