Hazmat Modine - Cicada

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Hazmat Modine
Barbes Records, US / Jaro Records, Germany

The music of Hazmat Modine is both familiar and unique. It is, in a sense, the Americana that explicitly states that the United States is a country among other countries, one where immigrant communities bump up against each other and where the old is pressed into service for the new. The group’s first album, 2008’s Bahamut, with its twin harmonica attack and atypical, vintage instruments, seemed to be channeling music from the first half of America’s 1900’s that had made some side trips through a few foreign ports. The group’s latest finds the group becoming more “contemporary,” shooting all the way up to the mid-20th century – it’s not rock ‘n’ roll, but it is getting closer. The music has electricity, even if most of the instruments don’t.

The New York-based ensemble is principally the work of Wade Schuman, who formed Hazmat Modine after having already established himself as a visual artist and an art professor. Having developed a facility and appreciation for the harmonica, Schuman slowly found his way to other like-minded musicians from a variety of genres and the band began playing regularly at the Terra Blues club in Manhattan.

The dual-harmonica sound seems to place them sonically within the low-tech, low-rent demimonde of old-time blues, but the band defies easy categorization; creating sounds that can be jazzy or rootsy, but when collaborating with the members of Hun Huur Tu (as they did on their first album), they can sound a bit otherworldly.

Cicada has Hazmat Modine partnering with a number of genre-bending artists to expand its sound including Benin’s New Orleans-sounding Gangbe Brass Band, the up-for-anything Kronos Quartet and vocalist Natalie Merchant.

Schuman’s singing and harmonica playing are the soulful center of the band, though the band’s other talented players overlay their own textures to keep the songs engaging. Pete Smith adds a number of tangy, spot-on solos on electric guitar and Joe Daley provides a great funky bottom on tuba. Though the songs are mostly original, Hazmat does a few cover tunes that highlight its eclectic vision. Schuman makes Irving Berlin’s “Walking Stick” seem like a contemporary hipster’s mantra, its almost-eerie surrealism juxtaposed with a jaunty brass-inflected arrangement that even evokes early klezmer.

The ‘70s R&B chestnut “I’ve Been Lonely So Long” seems strangely contemporary here amid the vintage sounds, but the doo-wop vocals are deliciously contagious. “Buddy” finds the band working the (relatively) straight blues, though a cimbalom tiptoes into the mix, which logically should not work as well as it actually does. Singer Catherine Russell underlines the gospel influences of “So Glad,” with its talk of leaving the world and the Old Testament-y chorus of “took my feet out the miring clay.”

The title cut recalls the title cut on the group’s first album, with a boiling mix that turns down to simmer in the middle section of the song as Schuman delivers a spoken, fantastical monologue, this time a poetic etymological tract about the album’s eponymous arthropod.

While one could deconstruct the music and tease out the various strains and influences, the better news is that the music is just plain fun, music that wears well and even gets comfortably familiar on repeated listening. - Marty Lipp

The band's web site is: www.hazmatmodine.com

CD available from cdRoots

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CD available from cdRoots

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