Loitering around the fringes of noxious cutesypoo wearing the latest indie-rock garb, Los Angeles’ lower-case (with period) that dog. made like a privileged pop music debutante, coyly feigning childishness that didn’t entirely disguise mature intelligence and poise. The harmonizing wispy voices of guitarist Anna Waronker (sister of Walt Mink’s Joey), bassist Rachel Haden and her violin-playing twin Petra (who was also in the Weezer-related Rentals; their brother was in the band Spain and their father is the solidly credentialed jazz bassist Charlie Haden) stamped a folky ambience on the quartet’s wan creations; even on those songs laid low with guitar distortion the vocals breeze along, paying little heed to their changing environment.
Switching between delicately strung-out chamber rock (with a guest cellist) and jellied punk-pop, that dog. is a no-cal shirley temple that attempts to subsist on anorexic melodies and flavorless performances. That leaves only the wit of such self-conscious lyrics as the laundry list of inanely trivial gripes that makes up “Westside Angst,” the sweetly derisive “Punk Rock Girl” and the junk-TV worship of “Paid Programming” to cling to. It’s not enough. (The old timer. EP contains the titular album track and another, plus a live version of the non-LP “Grunge Couple” and the otherwise unissued “I Invented a Head.”)
Perhaps belated recognition of the debut’s stylistic weakness explains the firmer textures of Totally Crushed Out!, a rosy-cheeked and punky power pop album that resembles Veruca Salt in spots. The band’s vocal capabilities actually connect with the energized arrangements, dressing them up rather than ignoring them. The relationship- and self-obsessed lyrics still reflect a stunted high-school sensibility (or the arch representation of one) and occasionally descend into needless clumsiness (“When it’s a day of days / I go into a craze / My head and body feel malaise”), but when the giddy ideas match the peppy music — as in the roaring “Lip Gloss” — that dog. can be a pleasure to have around.
If Juliana Hatfield was supposed to have the corner on obsessive relationships described in joyous guitar pop, no one informed that dog., since Retreat From the Sun is nothing but. “I’m Gonna See You” (“every night”), “Being With You” (“I sit with emptiness waiting for your call”), “Gagged and Tied” (“Would you love me gagged and tied?”), “Minneapolis” (“I was at the Jabberjaw / The cutest boy I ever saw / He was standing behind me”), “Hawthorne” (“Driving, looking for your parents’ house / Striving to find a piece of you”)…at least it sounds like more than one male is the subject of all this intensity. Produced by the band and Brad Wood, the guitar rock is stirring and strong, textured with Petra’s violin and Tony Maxwell’s inventive drumming, but the album’s endlessly aching narrator discourages the desire for intimacy with this record.
The collaboration between Petra Haden and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell (who has also recorded, beneficially to both men, with Elvis Costello) defies easy expectations by focusing on an eclectic collection of truly great pop and folk songs, from Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Elliot Smith’s “Satellite” to Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” and “Moon River.” Haden’s relaxed singing is delicate and alluring; Frisell’s playing (sparingly multi-tracked and augmented by her violin) is equally understated and inventive. While it occasionally ambles dangerously close to easy listening translucence, a lot of Petra Haden and Bill Frisell is often beautiful and nearly profound in its effect.
Other artists have assigned themselves the quixotic task of covering an entire classic album, but the unique object and wholly original treatment of Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out — recorded on a Tascam 8-track over the course of three years, basically on a dare from Mike Watt — makes it a roaring double success. The 1968 concept album, crafted to resemble a London radio broadcast, complete with imagined jingles and product commercials, is the Who’s greatest art-rock statement, a fully integrated cavalcade of cleverness, satiric wit, searing power and haunting beauty, complete with “Rael,” Pete Townshend’s first pass at the song cycle that would become Tommy. Rather than come at this daunting masterpiece head on, Haden stands ’60s guitar rock on its head, singing the whole effin’ thing a cappella! Keith Moon partisans will be disappointed at the absence of oral percussion, but she capably mouths everything else, from sound effects to guitar solos. Not all of the songs work equally well (the commercials are the least appealing things here), but the album’s prettiest songs — “Our Love Was (Is),” “Sunrise” and “I Can’t Reach You” — are unwrapped to underscore the delicate strength of their melodies and their enormous harmonic potential, which Haden makes completely her own. Absolutely brilliant.