The Revisionists 

Ode Hazelwood gracefully revive 1920s blues

Sophistication defeating its own good intentions is a pop subject that’s been brilliantly examined by any number of neurotic revivalists and disco pioneers. On their debut, Radio Noise, Nashville duo Ode Hazelwood inhabit the world of scratchy ’20s and ’30s blues records without resorting to cheap camp theatrics.

Sophistication defeating its own good intentions is a pop subject that’s been brilliantly examined by any number of neurotic revivalists and disco pioneers. On their debut, Radio Noise, Nashville duo Ode Hazelwood inhabit the world of scratchy ’20s and ’30s blues records without resorting to cheap camp theatrics. They sound alive and even a little terrified, while the finely worked lyrics and spacious, detailed production define the concerns of musicians who relish control, but remain unsure of the worth of that sensation.

Now married and in their 20s, Joseph and Raven Hazelwood met as music students at Belmont University. Unhappy with some of the commercial aspects of their academic programs, they left Belmont to pursue a career that would be informed more by their mutual admiration for The Memphis Jug Band than by the dictates of the mainstream music business. Joseph, a Kentuckian whose first instrument was the drums, began writing songs that combined easeful country blues with the unorthodox grace of mid-’60s British pop songwriters such as Syd Barrett and Ray Davies. A singer and violinist from eastern New York state, Raven owned a brazen, surrealistic and ageless voice reminiscent of Memphis blues singer Grandma Dixie Davis.

Produced by Joseph Hazelwood and Joe McMahan, Radio Noise utilizes Raven’s violin along with parade drums, funky kazoo breakdowns and strangely hollow blues guitar, making it a record whose brutal juxtapositions seem inevitable. “O’ Disgrace (Newport News Blues)” begins with an acoustic-guitar figure that recalls one of Skip James’ tense inventions. Cued by a cymbal crash, the vocal seems almost to squirt into existence, and Hazelwood delivers his lyrics as a convincing parody of megalomania. “I had a plan bigger than the bloody sea,” Hazelwood moans, while McMahan provides a backdrop of eerie percussion and feedback.

If Joseph Hazelwood at times sounds as nervous as Stan Ridgway, Raven evokes the whacked-out, eager spirit of vocalists such as Davis and Memphis Minnie without sounding beholden to any of them. On “The Good Life” and “13th Floor,” she turns the songs into fascinatingly conflicted statements about upward mobility. “The Good Life” also features perhaps the record’s canniest line: “I don’t listen to dead folks.” Radio Noise works like a movie, reminiscent of stark Depression-era morality tales such as Baby Doll and Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.

“Jamestown” and “Indiana” illustrate Ode Hazelwood’s approach, which is intellectualized but almost never precious. Both songs approach the great American heartland with trepidation, with “Indiana” sporting a delicate opening guitar lick and the chilling line, “They’ve got nothing that you’ll need or want in Indiana.” Similarly, “Jamestown” is a pop song that seems straightforward enough but which uses a “no-name city” to express emotions far more insidious.

This knack for the incomplete statement that bounces around in the listener’s head is matched by Ode Hazelwood’s ability to express what might be termed the hedonism of lowered expectations. “13th Floor” features the lines, “Squinting up to the sky / Beyond the low high-rise,” and mentions the “window of opportunity.” The songs display the kind of originality that might be the product of painstaking labor but seems unaffected, while the uncluttered production employs tuba, antique drums, musical saw and a ’70s electronic keyboard called an Optigan.

Although the idioms are different, Radio Noise achieves an ironic distance that brings to mind 1976’s Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, on which Cory Daye sang August Darnell’s allusive, sour-and-sweet lyrics in a manner that made the record more than a celebration of nostalgia and disco-era hedonism. Radio Noise might not match Savannah Band for warmth, but it’s as tough-minded, which is all you can ask from any revisionist art.

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