Mike Watt claims that indie-folk vocalist Petra Haden had never heard The Who's classic album The Who Sell Out when he suggested she cover the record in its entirety. Watt supplied Haden with an 8-track recorder, one track of which contained the original album, and he asked her to fill the remaining seven with her a cappella renditions of the bassline, the guitar, the drums, and so on. The result is Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, a pop oddity that transcends its gimmick. With no personal connection to Pete Townsend's mod-art conceptualism, Haden focuses on sound alone, making once-storming rock anthems like "Armenia City In The Sky" into mind-blowing psychedelic doo-wop exercises.
In its original form, The Who Sell Out suffered from a split personality, as Townsend and company mixed commercial jingles, ribald music-hall stories, and early stabs at rock opera into an unwieldy near-masterpiece. Haden's lo-fi multi-track vocals even out the material, especially once she moves past jokier songs like "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand" and "Tattoo" into punchy ballads like "Our Love Was" and "I Can't Reach You," which sound especially lissome with a background chorus of Hadens pinging away. The album really peaks at the close, with the hazy "Sunrise" and the abstract "Rael." Haden's voices drop to a near-murmur, her "ding-ding"s and "ooo-ooo"s achieve a symphonic harmony, and the sound of whispered rhythms and counter-rhythms becomes superhuman.
Haden recorded her Who project between 2000 and 2003, and though it's her most recent release, it's not her most recent work. That would be Petra Haden And Bill Frisell, in which she and the veteran jazz guitarist work through plaintive cover versions of songs by Elliott Smith, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, and the Gershwin brothers, among others. The album isn't as immediately arresting as Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, but since Frisell is as obsessive about creating original guitar sounds as Haden is about making her voice sound unusual, the duo come up with some remarkable effects. Petra Haden And Bill Frisell's two highlights are Wonder's "I Believe" and the Foos' "Floaty," both of which push past the six-minute mark, converting pop music into meditative bliss.