The first track on Odetta Hartman’s debut album features, among other noisemakers, a banjo, a violin, Hartman’s smoky singing, various found sound recordings, and, near the end, the unmistakable thump of a drum machine. In less capable hands, this musical amalgam might fail to cohere into an album. But throughout “222,” Hartman, along with her talented producer Jack Inslee, deftly brings together such different and sometimes surprising elements into beautiful, experimental, and integrative arrangements.
“222” is one tenth as long as its name would suggest, clocking in at a mere 22 minutes. Yet, in this small space, Hartman has created an incredible series of songs. The offerings are concisely composed—while none of the eight tracks is longer than a poppy three and a half minutes, they feel substantial and full of fascinating, carefully wrought detail. They are detailed without being cluttered or overwhelmed with ideas. The singularity of form results from Hartman’s unique but remarkably consistent style. Hartman, a 26-year old New York native, draws on what could be termed American folk styles; blues, country, and folk proper, so to speak. Her take on folk tends towards the experimental—“222” seems inspired both by such classics of the sub-genre as Patti Smith’s 1975 album “Horses” in its proto-punk sonic experimentations and Linda Perhacs’s gauzy, sensual, gently psychedelic 1970 album “Parallelograms.”
Hartman has a sense for the mystic and the mythic. Her lyrics frequently employ spiritual imagery—the Devil, in particular, is a recurring figure, appearing in about half the songs on the album. She takes a keen interest in ritual and rite. “Dreamcatchers,” for instance, captures a vision of an occult ceremony. “Lucky Dog” more lightly explores everyday superstitious practice: throwing salt over one’s shoulder, avoiding broken mirrors, and the like. Hartman nimbly switches between darker, more intense songs and lighter, happier fare—she has a flexible and beautifully expressive voice, as well a wide variety of musical tools at her disposal. “Dreamcatchers,” the heaviest song on the album, smoothly transitions into one of the mellowest and most mellifluous tunes, the Laurel Canyon-ish “Lazy LA.” Hartman is also talented at blending tones and themes; in “Tap Tap,” she sings quietly, meditatively, over a hazy, diaphanous guitar arrangement about an encounter with the Devil, eerily crooning lines such as, “tap tap went the cloven feet.” She describes meeting him in the “valley of Angels,” a clever inversion of the famous image from Psalm 23. This is emblematic of the playful inventiveness that marks Hartman’s music, a certain impish, wonderfully vital quality. She also intriguingly plays with the idea of authenticity itself—on the opening track, “Creektime,” she sings with a slightly affected, Joplin-esque bluesy rasp: “Oh truth be told this ain’t no fable.”
Hartman does sun-dappled nearly as well as she does dusky, and one of the highlights of the album is the sweet, dreamy “Limoncello.” On the lightly strummed chorus, Hartman, as if transmitting folkish wisdom—a lovely touch—offers instructions, if incomplete ones, for making the titular lemon liquor. “Limoncello” is a love song, imbued with a certain wistful longing—she sings, “I don’t mind killing time, until I see you again.” Earlier in the song, she effusively describes herself as being the happiest she’s ever been. It’s a beautiful track and a moving listen.
The best track on the album is “Dreamcatchers,” an incredible, riveting listen. The song narrates the story of a recurring nightmare Hartman experienced as a child. She sings, over a clanging, evocative banjo line, of envisioning a man standing in her doorway about to kidnap her. The song sounds rootsy and dark, as if taken from a spooky, ancient folk myth. Various eerie, nightmarish sonic effects further augment and intensify the sound. At the end of the song, the Devil succeeds in taking the child away, leading her to a hellish hoedown. The tempo quickens. There is whooping and stomping and a long, eerie, skittering instrumental screech. Over this flame-licked arrangement, Hartman wordlessly vocalizes, howling and moaning and, to borrow from Coleridge, sounding a bit like a “woman wailing for her demon-lover.” The fever dream ends as quickly as it begins, abruptly breaking off mid-scream. It is an absolutely stunning song in an album full of them. “222” showcases Hartman at her best—spinning her personal experiences into a deeply affecting and very beautiful Americana folk mythos. It is powerfully experimental, inventive, and playful.