An engagingly peculiar mix of experimental folk, Americana, and field recording pastiche, Odetta Hartman's excellent sophomore full-length, Old Rockhounds Never Die, expands on her similarly charming 2015 debut, 222. Like that album, Rockhounds was produced by partner and collaborator Jack Inslee, whose warped manipulations and decidedly modernist aesthetic deeply inform Hartman's unusual presentation. The juxtaposition of old-timey feel and raw digitalism is immediately apparent on the wonky "Cowboy Song," a sparse midtempo train ballad that pits the singer's gently treated banjo plucks and trilling vocals against jarring electronic percussion and buried harsh static. Similarly, "Widow's Peak" fuses Hartman's rugged back-porch picking to eerie clouds of strings that sizzle with random dissonance and do battle with odd vocal entrances and the highly effective field-recorded endcaps that form an ongoing motif throughout the album. Some tracks, like the brief autoharp instrumental "Auto," serve merely as atmospheric interludes and feel as though they might have been captured amid the pink-lit cave stalactites that adorn the album's cover photo. Hartman's deft use of these stalwart instruments of American folk tradition (banjo, autoharp, fiddle, etc.) gives Rockhounds a vague sense of earthy intention without ever taking root; they instead feel ephemeral and frequently off-putting in their edgy experimentalism. It's a neat trick that keeps the listener engaged, slightly uncomfortable, and generally unsure of what might suddenly happen to these otherwise familiar sounds. Perhaps the most affecting track is the centerpiece and lead single, "Misery," a murder ballad whose nail-biting dynamism comes as much from its narrative as from the erratic vocal effects, gunshots, and frenzied sonic whorl of a conclusion. The tranquility achieved from the birdsong-adorned penultimate track, "Carbon Copy," is dismantled by Hartman's disquieting finale, "(Still Alive)," a short vocal and guitar ballad pitched down to unrecognizable dark molasses. Equal parts mesmerizing and challenging, Rockhounds has a truly unique allure.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger