Hazmat Modine’s unique sound defies categorization. At the same time it is both familiar and foreign, both old and new, and sits on the tip of your musical tongue like a long-lost memory you just can’t seem to conjure up. But unlike the frustration of being stuck in the mud of mental limbo, once you hop aboard their troubadour-packed street car you’re headed for a musical adventure.
From the opening cut of their recently released Extra Deluxe Supreme, to the last, you travel through misty musical streets past mardi-gras revelers and dancing gypsies, past delta blues artists and poets, through the crooked roads of Appalachian roots music and the far reaches of the Central Asian Steppes, taking in honkey-tonk joints and dance halls along the way. Founder and band leader, Wade Schuman characterizes Hazmat Modine’s third album in ten years as “the product of a kind of musical journey.” This is true both figuratively (their sound is what I think of when I hear the term “world music”) and literally as their band has toured the world over (they are currently in Europe).
Although street cars have long since disappeared in New York, this journey begins in Hazmat Modine’s home base of the Big Apple, America’s melting pot of immigrants (musical and otherwise). So it’s no surprise that the band is ethnically and gender diverse. Everywhere you look the nine member band plus selected guest musicians add new influences and all seem to blend and enhance the flavor of their musical gumbo.
“Another Day” begins our journey with banjo and harmonica that evoke hobos hopping a freight train as it creaks and moans leaving the yard, slowly picking up speed with the introduction of the horn section, finally reaching cruising speed with crisp tag team vocals and airy harmonies against counter point rhythms. Next up is “Plans”, with an intro reminiscent of a New Orleans style front line march. Then a blues guitar riff shifts gears leading into a heavily syncopated tango beat with chorus harmonies that harken back to the best of the Band. This tune also features Hazmat’s horns, tenor sax and harmonica in a well-orchestrated arrangement.
Then Schuman evokes Ry Cooder in “Your Sister” but features multiple layers with accordion (Rachelle Garniez), traditional throat singers and a doshpuluur (sounds like a banjo in the bass register) from the remote Russian Republic of Tuva group, Alash, that blend with and highlight the horns and tuba on bass. The Tuvan throat singers have been likened to the low droning sound of a Jew’s harp, but to me they sound a bit like the low growl Billy Costello used to characterize Popeye’s unique voice qualities. Adding depth in that tune are also the combined sounds of the flute-like Tuvan shoor, Chilean zamponia (pan flute) and piccolo.
Around the bend come the mellow strains of Klezmer inspired strings and brass in “Up and Rise” (except it’s instrumental accompaniment also features a Mariachi trumpet, jazz trombone, honky tonk sax, and blues harp in the eclectic mix). According to an interview with Schuman I read, Arcadia is a shout out to Pop Staples and the Staple Singers gospel tradition (listen for Pop’s characteristic tremolo guitar sound in the intro). A smoky sax solo by Steve Elson starts us off in “Moving Stones”, followed by a bright rhythmic trumpet/trombone intro (Pam Fleming and Reut Regev, respectively), when harmonica and tuba step in and finally Schuman and Hazmat harmonies soar.
“Whiskey Bird” starts with a simple acoustic guitar and vocal reminiscent of the Incredible String Band, but it too slowly picks up with interwoven horns, flute, and electric guitar and takes flight. With its funky beat and repentant message “All of My Days” and the Howlin’ Wolf style vocals in “End of Sweet Dreams” the next tunes are heavily influenced by traditional American blues. Finally we detour through the minor key melodies of Django Reinhardt’s pre-war France in the disk’s last cut “Most of All”.
While most of Extra-Deluxe-Supreme is fresh and new, there are a few scattered hints of familiarity that borrow heavily on previous tunes. For example, “Up and Rise” is reminiscent in melody and beat of “Bahamut”, the title track on their debut album.
Although the journey takes you over hills and valleys with many sharp turns, the tracks are steady as a rock, in part thanks to Tim Keiper (drums) and Erik Della Penna (guitar and banjo). As in their previous two albums, Extra Deluxe Supreme is propelled by Joseph Daley’s energetic tuba/sousaphone on the bass line. The musical fabric throughout is woven tightly around Michaela Gomez’s choice guitar riffs and Wade Schuman’s wailing virtuoso harmonica which (e.g., on “End of Sweet Dreams”) are a constant reminder that regardless of the exciting detours, Hazmat Modine is well grounded in American roots traditions.
Preview of “Moving Stones” (Click on picture)
Here’s a live recording of the Tuvan group Alash: