The idea of Petra Haden — singer, in-demand session violinist, former member of alt-rockers That Dog, daughter of jazz legend Charlie Haden — covering The Who Sell Out is a bit of a puzzler. That she did it entirely a cappella threatens to reduce the project to complete folly.
In truth, the album is much better and natural sounding than anyone might have expected. Haden painstakingly spent about four years overdubbing her voice over on an eight-track machine given to her by punk legend Mike Watt. It was Watt who suggested the whole endeavor to Haden (and explains why in the album’s liner notes), and he provided a tape of Sell Out to Haden so she could gradually trace her vocals over each part.
Time will tell whether Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out‘s charms are more than just novelty. The Who Sell Out has some novelty aspects of its own, after all. It was the band’s tribute to the pirate radio stations that briefly docked just outside the British government’s jurisdiction until Parliament closed the legal loophole that had enabled them to do so. Thus, the album juxtaposed the Who’s songs with jingles and radio ads — some real, some invented by the band themselves. That Haden pulls these off is perhaps the album’s cleverest feature, as she swoons over “the highly successful sound of wonderful Radio London” or puts her stamp on the band’s rousing “Heinz Baked Beans” march.
But when it comes to the album’s main course — the songs — Haden proves to be up to the task. Rather than try to imitate the Who’s patented sonic onslaught (surely, that would result in hyperventilation, not to mention some pretty uneasy listening), she creates vocal arrangements that imply parts as often that they outright imitate them. Her low-drone hums and percussive effects opening “I Can See for Miles” are just enough to conjure the original’s simmering drama.
Watt really knew what he was doing when he chose this particular album for Haden. The Who Sells Out combines the vaguely baroque air of the melodies (a writing style Pete Townshend would take to its natural conclusion two years later with Tommy) with some of the finest vocal harmonies the band ever put to tape. “Tattoo,” “I Can’t Reach You” and, especially, “Sunrise” (which was already incredibly ethereal to begin with) sound astonishingly apt reinterpreted by a mini-choir of female voices. Sometimes she provides songs with a new subtext, as when she innocently trills the ode to hand jobs, “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand.”
If nothing else, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out rescues the Who from their most embarrassing latter-day legacies. She takes the spotlight off the bad behavior and crass commercialism and puts it back on the amazing songs, where it belongs.