Odetta Hartman’s 222 is the debut cassette release from Northern Spy. The label has taken a while to jump on the tape bandwagon, which is perhaps surprising given its impeccable leftfield credentials. But Hartman’s neo-psychedelic alt country, recalling early 2000’s luminaries like Devendra Banhart and Josephine Foster at their best, is as good a choice as any for the label to dip its toe into the increasingly well-populated waters of music on tape.
Clocking in a at a mere 22 minutes, this album doesn’t hang about. But it packs plenty of variety into its brief running time, Hartman continuing the tendency she started with previous releases of messing with the standard freak folk formula. 2014’s Bark, although consisting of just four tracks, mobilised an orchestra’s worth of brass, strings and percussion as well as a seven-person choir (rather endearingly named the Male Chorus of The Apocalypse) to get its message across.
If 222 is somewhat of a retreat from this expansiveness, there’s still lots to enjoy in its quirky, pared down approach. So there are world-weary vocals and gently plucked banjos, sure. But there are also the harsh cracks of drum machines, random percussion snaps and the rock stomp of fuzzy guitars. Check out those overloaded drum machine rushes at the end of Creektime that threaten to turn the song from dusty country blues into silvery d’n’b banger. Or the filtered digital fuzz of Dreamcatchers with its cacophonous, frazzled-circuit breakdown.
I particularly like the grinning evil of Batonebo, in which Hartman channels the brooding cowboy gothic of all those men in black – Cash, Cave, Lanegan and the like – into a lurching, echoing beast of a tune, all tremelo, tambourine and crushing snare, across which her voice lashes like a bullwhip in a scorched desert.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still enough banjos here to keep a Sufjan Stevens tribute band happy for a month of weddings and Bahmitzvahs. Lazy LA is typical example, with a sun-dappled slow acoustic guitar motif, almost bossa-nova in its mellow precision, that’s the perfect vehicle for Hartman’s cracked, wistful crooning.
But Hartman’s sharp, clear voice and unfussy arrangements keep things firmly on the right side of the street, well away from the twee, old-timey earnestness that afflicts much of the music of this type. Good, enjoyable stuff to accompany your first double espresso of the day.
Odetta Hartman’s Bandcamp is here.