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    Hearing voices while watching movies

    On “Petra Goes to the Movies,” Petra Haden performs mostly a cappella versions of film music by some famous — and some less-than-famous — composers.
    Steven Perilloux
    On “Petra Goes to the Movies,” Petra Haden performs mostly a cappella versions of film music by some famous — and some less-than-famous — composers.

    Petra Haden, who sings and plays the violin, has been in a number of bands, including That Dog and the Decemberists. She’s also recorded several solo albums.

    One of them, “Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out,” is in a league of its own. Through overdubbing, Haden sings all the vocal and instrumental parts originally performed by Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and their bandmates on that 1967 album. Describing his response to Haden’s version, Townshend told the Globe’s Joan Anderman in 2005, “I was enjoying my own music so much, for in a way it was like hearing it for the first time.”

    Which brings us to Haden’s latest album, “Petra Goes to the Movies.” That league of its own now has two members. In form, “Petra Goes to the Movies” is like her Who album, a cappella performances (this time with a few ringers) courtesy of extensive overdubbing. In content, it’s just what the title says: movie music.


    There are 16 tracks. Some of the composers are famous: Nino Rota (“Carlotta’s Galop,” from “8½”), Ennio Morricone (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “Cinema Paradiso”), Bernard Herrmann (“Psycho,” “Taxi Driver”). Some aren’t: Gary DeMichele (“Pascal’s Waltz,” from “Big Night”), Bob Telson (“Calling You,” from “Bagdad Café”). The oldest music is the theme from “Rebel Without a Cause” (you get bonus points if you could name Leonard Rosenman as the composer — and double that if you knew he won an Oscar for “Barry Lyndon”). The newest is “Hand Covers Bruise,” from Trent Reznor’s score for “The Social Network.”

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    Haden’s father is the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden. He plays, along with guitarist Bill Frisell, on one of the three tracks that isn’t a cappella: “This Isn’t America,” by Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny, from “The Falcon and the Snowman.”

    Haden père knows his way around movies, too. He led a small group in the ’90s, Quartet West, whose repertoire often drew on movie songs of the ’40s and ’50s, as well as a general noirish atmosphere. The first track on two of the group’s best albums, “Haunted Heart” and “Always Say Goodbye,” is none other than a vintage recording of one of the most familiar snatches of music from the Studio Era, the Warner Bros. fanfare, composed by Max Steiner and Adolph Deutsch.

    Petra Haden has a further film connection. Jack Black is her brother-in-law. He’s married to Haden’s sister Tanya. She’s a singer, too, as is their sister Rachel (yes, they’re triplets — and, yes, “The Bandwagon” has a number just waiting for the sisters to record on “Petra Goes to the Movies II”).

    Haden’s recording has two primary moods. One is wistful and subdued, as on “This Isn’t America” or the two other ringers, “Calling You” (with pianist Brad Mehldau) and “It Might Be You,” the Dave Grusin-composed theme song from “Tootsie” (with Frisell).


    More often, the album is antic and ebullient, almost to the point of goofiness, but only almost. It’s full of humor without ever descending into mockery. Haden is always laughing with, never at — unless it’s at herself. She does double duty on John Barry’s “Goldfinger” theme, singing both the instrumental backing (quite wonderfully) and the lyrics. The latter isn’t exactly up to the original. The character of Haden’s voice is slightly girlish and a bit blanched. It’s ideally suited for certain numbers. Her version of “It Might Be You” is much superior to Stephen Bishop’s primly wan original. But as regards “Goldfinger” — let’s just say that, vocally, she’s Shirley Bassey without the chassis.

    The performances can be fiendishly intricate. But they convey such a sense of someone enjoying herself — of a project that’s clearly a labor of love — it never seems like a stunt. At times, “Petra Goes to the Movies” sounds like “The Swingle Singers Go Hollywood” — but without the Swingles’ mechanical quality. There’s an obvious relationship to scat singing, but with a key difference. Scat works as a departure from or elaboration on. Master scat singers — Louis Armstrong (its progenitor), Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter — go to unexpected places with their scatting. They’re using their voices the way Sonny Rollins uses his tenor saxophone during a solo. Haden’s singing is scat-like, rather than scat, in that it works as a burrowing in or drilling down. Listening to her is like seeing — or hearing — an X-ray of the orchestrations. Remember what Townshend said about hearing her do “The Who Sell Out.”

    Instead of strings and brass and reeds, of course, it’s just Haden’s voice — or iterations of her voice — and that singularity of source works to clarify the textures of the arrangements in revelatory ways. Hearing the series of huh, huh, huhs she uses to mimic the cellos in “Psycho” is both hilarious and illuminating. Sometimes the clarification is melodic. The theme from “Cinema Paradiso” keeps seeming on the verge of breaking into “Somewhere” or “The Shadow of Your Smile.” As for John Williams’s “Superman” theme, Haden (who really nails the brass part) inadvertently suggests how much it foreshadows Williams’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme, released three years later.

    “Superman” may be the most enchanting performance on “Petra Goes to the Movies,” but “Carlotta’s Galop” is best in show (and what a show). It really is a gallop: jaunty and swoopy and playful. If Rota’s composition is the best circus music you’ve ever heard without being at the circus, then Haden’s performance is the best Fellini music you’ve ever heard without being at a Fellini movie. Guido Anselmi would now seem to have a new woman in his life.

    Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe