Hazmat Modine Box of Breath
Review by Marty Lipp
Part of the magic conjured up by the always entertaining Hazmat Modine is that the New York-based group's music seems instantly familiar, yet that familiarity quickly gives way to a realization that there are some unexpected exotic threads woven throughout the intricate tapestry of the songs.
As it has on past albums, the group continues to have a retro blues-jazz feel, but the music never sits in one genre too firmly. One of the consistent hallmarks of the group has been its collaborations with musicians from other countries this time it's Malian-born Balla Kouyate playing the wooden marimba-like balafon, keeping pace amid the galloping brass, drums and electric instruments.
Frontman Wade Schuman can channel an old-time bluesman growl, but the songs he and Erik Della Penna write have lyrics that are more than rootsy soul chants; they can often be impressionistic, poignant or flat-out funny. In a sense, this is what the band does: creating art music half-hidden behind a mask of folk music. One common theme throughout Hazmat's career has been the gathering of highly talented instrumentalists who serve each song in precise arrangements, then are given liberty to step out for eye-opening runs. (As for the group's name: "Hazmat" is a reference to hazardous materials, alluding to some danger; and "Modine" is a large, industrial heater, an allusion to the harmonica and other hot blowing brass instruments that make up its sound.)
On the lively opening cut, "Crust of Bread," the full band is at its best seamlessly combining domestic and international sounds as if America was comfortably part of the world! rocking and swinging while Schuman casts out images of the quotidian struggle of people and pigeons struggling to survive. A mid-song doubling in tempo acts as a glimpse of the horsepower the efficient band has under its collective hood.
"Box of Breath" (excerpt)
On the title cut, the group starts off with a laid-back groove that sounds like it is coming from a front porch south of the Mason-Dixon line if a travelling balafon player had shambled down the road to join in. As Schuman tosses off random images from nature interspersed with bits of sagely if playful bits of wisdom, the band plays some atypical instruments, building up to a slow swing behind him. "Nothing is safe, not even living/Longer we live, sooner we die .Every old person's just a young person getting old."
"Be There" showcases the band's ebullient brass section undergirded by Joseph Daly's fluid and funky tuba. It also features Schuman's fuzz-toned diatonic harmonica playing, which was a big part of the band's distinctive sound in its early years when it had an unusual lineup of two lead harmonica players.
"The Hoarder" (excerpt)
Schuman inhabits the comic persona of the namesake narrator in the bluesy "Hoarder," singing about collecting "bones, shoes, old tubes of glue," as the brass players take turns wailing solos that belie the silliness at the center of the song.
"Lonely Man" (excerpt)
"Lonely Man" starts with a sad-tinged dobro melody, handing things off to Della Penna's high, plaintive singing, eventually evolving to a sui generis jam session punctuated by harmonica, balafon, brass and then Daly flying through a wonderful tuba solo. Though "Deliveryman" is about, yes, a delivery man ("He may come early/Hey may come late/If you complain/He'll make you wait"), it is the basis for a rocking showcase of the band's smile-inducing virtuosity and ends with a klezmer-flavored jam.
While Hazmat Modine has evolved across its five albums and 20-plus years, it continues to create music that is richly textured, pleasantly surprises and maintains listeners' interest over the long haul. It is not damning with faint praise to call the music fun: it is carefully crafted to be just that; its intelligence and workmanship is not hidden, but also not an end in itself the grooves are there for an easy ride, and the music has enough great twists and turns to keep listeners coming back for a return journey. - Marty Lipp