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Odetta Hartman - Old Rockhounds Never Die Music Album Reviews

On her second album, the kaleidoscopic future-folk sounds of Odetta Hartman are brought into immaculate focus.

In 1935, a 20-year-old Alan Lomax traveled south with author Zora Neale Hurston and folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle to conduct a series of field recordings documenting traditional African-American music in Georgia and Florida, and folk songs of Haiti and the Bahamas. Over 200 discs of music detail a trip that was, by all means, unconventional: A white kid traveling with two 44-year-old women, one black and one white, sharing rooms and meals in a segregated environment where such mingling elicited withering side eye at best. It also marked an early use of a new Presto recording device, which captured sound instantaneously to blank discs. Lomax celebrated the past by embracing the future, in the equipment he used and the company he kept.

This bit of history is key when distilling the beautifully moonstruck, virtuosic future-folk of Odetta Hartman. Seemingly born for a folk singer’s life, she was named for icon Odetta Holmes, and the Lomax trip was a focus of her thesis at Bard College. In turn, such presentations of traditional sounds via modern technology forms the basis of her newest work, Old Rockhounds Never Die. It also speaks to her working relationship with partner and producer Jack Inslee, a studied technician who stitches throbbing low-end with her violin squeals, and 808 taps with her plucky banjo, with the precision and grace of a fine tailor. The whole thing is born of a DIY ethos—Hartman plays all of the instruments herself, and Inslee created most of the beats in their home. You’d never know that, though, given the album’s rich quality of sound.

The act of field recording is as much an extension of Hartman as her striking voice, which lives somewhere between the countrified jazz singer realm of Jolie Holland and the breathy incantations of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. She and Inslee carry a Zoom H4N Handy Recorder everywhere they go, from the streets of New York to the medinas of Morocco, on the chance they’ll encounter some lightning bolt worth bottling. When paired with the autodidactic banjo playing, violin, electric guitar, and bass of Old Rock Hounds Never Die, Icelandic birds, D.C. thunderstorms, and New Orleans frogs become essential players in an unlikely and utterly magical symphony.

Like a cowboy on acid, Hartman whispers, warbles, and howls tales of California train travel, gunfights, and lost lovers—marvelous, rattling, and bit different each time they’re experienced. Album standout “Sweet Teeth” is as bitter a love song as anything that’s crossed Lucinda Williams’ lips, guided by Inslee’s guttural vibrations and Hartman’s frenetic banjo. “I got a sweet man/He’s trapped in my claws,” she proclaims. These things that should not go together, in fact, do, with an elegance and energy that belies a dissection of its parts.

“Misery” flips the script on the murder ballad. Throbbing beats, plucky banjo, and blood-curdling yowls reclaim the legions of female bodies killed and commodified for the sake of a song. It raises the heart rate at a sprinter’s pace, no-doubt mimicking the internal pounding of the woman who holds the gun. Terrifying as the song becomes, there’s comfort in such defiance: A woman who is reclaiming tradition with a man who is happy to assist.

All of the auxiliary percussion on the album is foley: Snare sounds were made from a running faucet; the glockenspiel heard on “Freedom” is stainless steel mixing bowls; there are pepper grinders and keys on a radiator, all recorded at home. In a musical ecosystem where singular is overused and haunting is all but nauseating, Hartman and Inslee’s work here is deserving of such accolades. There is nothing quite else that ties together such imaginative incongruence with ease, a quilt of scraps that cannot be replicated. What should be a hot mess is a marvel, a constellation of sounds shining bright and mysterious.

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