Opinions about the self-titled Petra Haden and Bill Frisell will likely depend on whether the latter gives listeners the Willies or they find the guitarist Unspeakable. Those attracted by his mellow heartland meditations on The Willies (Nonesuch, 2002) will likely enjoy it; those shunning it in favor of his eclectic modernism on Unspeakable (Nonesuch, 2004) may find it too tame. This assumes, of course, that there's also an interest in hearing the frilly vocals of Petra Haden.
Make no mistake, this is Pop Standards Lite. The reason it's not necessarily lightweight is both musicians perform it well. Arrangements are often creative without sacrificing recognizability and the interplay between them usually succeeds.
One exception: Haden's vocals are drenched in too much processing, muddling the sonic textures that so often elevate Frisell's albums above the ordinary. Haden, the daughter of legendary bassist Charlie Haden, is accomplished enough as an indie pop-rock singer to not need such handicaps, and a minimalist approach in line with the folk-oriented instrumentation would be far superior. (Frisell, by the way, has collaborated a number of times with her father, including a pair of excellent trio albums led by drummer Ginger Baker.)
Tom Waits' "I Don't Want To Grow Up" is a highlight simply because it takes on a nursery rhyme tone. "Baï-laa Taigam" is a reflective and mature change of pace. "Moon River" emerges as a slow-paced winner thanks to a light touch on instrumentation and processing. Some listeners' limits for frilly might get stretched on "When You Wish Upon A Star" and "I've Got A Crush On You," where Haden sings with something of a childlike quality, but those who enjoy the Disney touch on compositions ("Sorcerer's Apprentice" or "Someday My Prince Will Come," anyone?) will probably find the arrangements refreshing.
Frisell shines at times, content to stay back and just offer riffing support at others. He's probably best appreciated on the originals "Throughout" and "The Quiet Room," where Haden offers vocal support without words. Frisell mixes folk, mild electric rock and the usual range of jazz influences into his strums and pluckings, mercifully avoiding most of the clashing experimentation that jarred some ears on Unspeakable.
There's enough here to make an encore collaboration worth encouraging (this time they ought to bring in the elder Haden; surely many have already suggested this by now). Given that both tend to perform on the modern edge of the contemporary scene, the next round of compositions might focus more on the new and original, rather than the past. Save that retro touch for the recording studio engineers and the result ought to be fully worthy of the talent.
Personnel: Petra Haden, vocals, violin; Bill Frisell, electric and acoustic guitars, loops