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Alien and Familiar: The Music of Hazmat Modine

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hazmat Modine is a New York band fronted by two harmonica players. Their repertoire starts with blues and branches into various genres of Americana. But there's always a twist. Tuba bass lines, east European hammer dulcimer or Tuvan throat singing. The group's debut CD is called Bahamut. And reviewer Banning Eyre says its charm is the way it lends an air of mystery and other worldliness to familiar sounds.

(Soundbite of CD, “Bahamut”)

BANNING EYRE: There are lots of ways to approach American roots music. Some artists try to recreate it just as it was in its day. Others want to update it with contemporary aesthetics. Hazmat Modine approach Americana with a kind of surreal elegance, hunting always for that perfect, magical combination of sounds no matter where they come from.

For leader Wade Shuman, topping a gutbucket Mississippi delta grove with vocals from the central Asian step is true to the essential American experience. As he puts it, the melting pot of different cultures banging up against each other.

(Soundbite of CD, “Bahamut”)

EYRE: The growling and whistling you hear comes from the Tuvan throat singers of the group Huun-Huur-Tu, perhaps the most exotic of the guest performers here. Why Tuva? No particular reason. It's just a great sound, like the bass marimba lurking low in the mix of this song, Dry Spell.

(Soundbite of song, “Dry Spell”)

Mr. WADE SHUMAN (Hazmat Modine): (Singing) You've said you're so thirsty. You even drink my tears. (Unintelligible) into glasses. Let's toast to (unintelligible). We're riding a wave, we're riding a wave of a dry spell.

EYRE: Wade Shuman came out of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, jazz and blues scene but he always favored the harmonica styles of the ‘20s and ‘30s, music that was more syncopated, dance oriented and playful.

(Soundbite of CD, “Bahamut”)

EYRE: The harmonica began as a German folk instrument. It caught on in the U.S. because it was cheap and portable. Soon American musicians were bending notes and finding overtones the instrument's creators had never imagined. And that's the perfect metaphor for Hazmat Modine. Even the name sounds vaguely Turkish, but it's actually all American.

Hazmat stands for hazardous materials and a Modine is a brand of industrial four-stair heater. The fourteen songs on this CD, as with so much great folk music, are all about invocative sound textures and passionate performance. And oh yes, a sense of humor as well.

(Soundbite of CD, “Bahamut”)

Mr. SHUMAN: (Singing) No one has ever seen Bahamut. Some think it's a fish. Some think it's a newt. All we know is that the lonely Bahamut floats endlessly through all time and all space with all of us and everything floating in a single tear of his eye.

SIEGEL: The CD is called Bahamut from Hazmat Modine. Our reviewer, Banning Eyre, is senior editor at AfroPop.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Banning Eyre