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Odetta Hartman: Old Rockhounds Never Die

Odetta Hartman: Old Rockhounds Never Die CoverI knew nothing about Odetta Hartman when I downloaded this record from Spotify.

I saw the cover, a blend of a middle-American roadside attraction and 60s-era cult leader style—just my sort of thing. I listened to a few brief samples of the music–seemed interesting–and brought it with me.

I can’t believe what I found.

Hartman’s sound is immediately confounding. You’ll be reminded of contemporaries like Sylvan Esso and Shovels and Rope.

There are deeper influences, too. There’s a lot of Alan Lomax-era blues influences going on. More than once I found myself thinking of Leadbelly.

Hartman’s song, “Widow’s Peak,” haunts like a Leadbelly or Robert Johnson song. In the song, Hartman tells the story of waiting for a lover to come home from sea, expecting death instead of a safe arrival.

She sings, “I pray for you on the widow’s peak/I hold steadfast to my tired belief/That the wind won’t rip you overboard/Still I scan for your body on the shore.” The image of the body on the shore sits heavy as strings come in underneath the track, evocative of a Danny Elfman score, framing the scene with a kind of fairytale grotesqueness that is simply disturbing.

This kind of attention to detail in the production of these songs by producer/collaborator Jack Inslee is what makes this the kind of record that isn’t an exercise in nostalgia revivalism.

This kind of attention to detail in the production of these songs by producer/collaborator Jack Inslee is what makes this the kind of record that isn’t an exercise in nostalgia revivalism.

In one sense, Old Rockhounds Never Die will remind the listener of Sylvan Esso, with Odetta Hartman’s vocals similar to Amelia Meath and Jack Inslee’s sample-heavy production style similar to Nick Sanborn.

In another sense, the instrumentation on the album also conjures contemporaries like Shovels and Rope, with a clear understanding of American roots music present in very track.

However, I feel like the clearer line to draw here is with Sudan Archives. Hartman shares much with Sudan Archives’ Brittney Parks. Parks is a fiddle player, Hartman a violin player. Both artists use samples to build a world to songs that are lyrically spare. Both are drawing from folk music traditions.

This is especially pronounced on “Spit,” a song that feels ripped straight from Sudan Archives’ catalog. On the song, Hartman tells the story of someone walking straight up to her and spitting in her face. You get the sense that it is a lover, because her response, ““And if I run to you, you shove me away/
So I gotta run from you, find another to take my place.”

On so many of these songs, the lyrics are mere fragments. There are no “full story” tracks. Instead, Hartman sets listeners within a scene.

It’s in this sense that Inslee’s use of field recordings is so skilled. The gunshot and police siren samples put the listener on the run with the protagonist of the song, “Misery.” On “Cowboy Song,” Inslee samples a train whistle to put the listener on the train with the protagonist. The bird sound samples on “The Ocean” put you at the oceanside.

But on a song like “The Ocean,” there’s a transformation into something else, when a synthetic bass sound drops, there’s a Blade Runner-quality to the soundscape, taking the listener beyond the familiar setting at the shore to some place else.

The mystery present in Old Rockhounds Never Die is that it is an experience. It’s a mysterious, familiar, and hard-to-categorize experience, which is spare in detail, but cinematic in its vision.