One Track Mind: Petra Haden "I Can See For Miles" (2005)

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by Pico

Readers of this site are going to think that we are celebrating Father’s Day two months early because for the second time in as many days, a talented offspring of a famous father is getting the spotlight. Charlie Haden’s daughter Petra never aspired to fill her dad’s huge shoes as a premier acoustic bassist—who could?—but she did pick up proficiency at violin, trumpet, mandolin and keyboards.

Oh yeah, and she can sing, too. Man, can she sing.

If you’re skeptical of the claim, then consider the huge artistic feat she pulled off a few years ago. One day a friend suggests she recreates The Who’s entire classic 1967 pop gem The Who Sell Out note-for-note, reproducing all the instrumental as well as vocal parts. Using only her voice.

Consider the monumental task this had to have been. It’s tough enough to approximate instruments with your mouth as it is, but on the original, the guitarist was active, the bass player was active and you better believe the drummer was active. The vocal parts were well within her extraordinary range, but she was mimicking men’s vocals, nonetheless. Men who sang with British accents.

Add to this the added challenge of tackling a “concept” album of sorts, that was presented as a radio program, with faux promotional spots and ditties of a London-based station bridging together the actual songs. Yes, Petra covered those, too.

If you listen to both The Who Sell Outs, you’ll even notice that every tune is played in the same pitch and runs about the same length. It’s called “attention to detail,” folks.

According to one account I read at the time her album was released, Haden hadn’t even heard the Who record before her acquaintance pitched it to her as a reverse-engineering venture.

It took her three years to complete this project. After all, those seemingly endless layers of vocals were taped by Haden herself using an eight-track recorder. It all sounds like something better suited for a dissertation toward a PhD. in Music Theory, but you can’t help but appreciate the effort she put into this and all the hard work would be for naught if she lacked the facility to pull it off.

She’s not lacking, of course, and the resulting album, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out is a marvel for how well she captures the feel and textures of this record.

I could pick out almost any song out of this CD to highlight, but I’m choosing “I Can See For Miles” because it’s sure to bring desperately-needed hits to this site everyone knows what it’s supposed to sound like. Like most of the other selections from Sell Out, Haden doesn’t completely duplicate every single part; Keith Moon’s nonstop tom-tom fills aren’t represented in her version. Instead of attempting to cover less essential bits that’s sure to fall flat, the emphasis is smartly placed on the cues the listener is more likely to hone in on. That means the main melodic line as carried from Pete Townshend’s hard strumming acoustic guitar, his patented electric guitar wails, and of course, Roger Daltrey’s multi-tracked vocals get representation. The soaring harmonies that branch out as the song’s title is sung are oh so rich, it could pay for most people’s retirements. And it’s not even Haden’s best “vocal part” work on this record.

The Who’s The Who Sell Out was a novelty album, albeit a novelty concept full of serious songs. Petra Haden’s rendition of that album might be considered a novelty, too. In both cases, though, the craftsmanship is too much for either to be considered lightweight, unlike what most such undertakings really are, ultimately. Even after listening to “I Can See For Miles” as interpreted by Petra Haden you’ll still likely to listen to The Who’s original more often, but for those handful of occasions you’d be inclined to listen to Petra’s amazing version, it will blow you away every time.

So, can Haden’s replication can be replicated live? Sure can, with the help of nine other women:

Sample: Petra Haden “I Can See For Miles”

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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