Tom Hagerman – Idle Creatures

Tom Hagerman - Idle Creatures

Tom Hagerman - Idle Creatures

There is addition by subtraction, when a band strips its sound down and gets to the core of it, yielding a rawer, truer vibe. Then there is simply subtraction by subtraction, when a band takes away something essential to its music, leaving it with less than it started with. Tom Hagerman, the violin, accordion, piano, Melodica man of DeVotchka, has made a new album, Idle Creatures, which is a good example of the second type of subtraction.

It’s an album that’s rather hard to classify, and one wonders if it weren’t billed as a “stunning new solo album of Tom Hagerman from DeVotchka” would we even be listening to it, let alone comparing it unfavorably to DeVotchka’s body of work?. A hint comes courtesy of the press release, which reminds us that Hagerman was behind the soundtrack to “Little Miss Sunshine.” And so at a first go, we might think that this is soundtrack music, a genre I’ve never really had much fondness for (why would you listen to an album that was designed to be mostly in the background?).

But a closer listen reveals this simply to be not a rock album, but a classical album. Taken on those terms, it’s OK, if that’s what you’re looking for. But a lot of the classical sound here seems derivative. The clarinet opening for “A Death in the Harbor,” seems taken from some Beethoven symphony somewhere, and track two (“Granny Old Wound”) could have been an outtake from the theme song for The Simpsons, even down to the car honk-sounding horns.

When the songs are sprightly and upbeat, they are listenable, engaging, even enjoyable. “Happy Music For Sad Children,” in addition to having an awesomely winsome title, is decent chamber music. But when the songs slow down (the seriously sleepy “Lullaby”) or the melodies don’t engage (the computer squawky “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes”) something is missing: and that something is vocals, specifically the wailing and winding vocals of Nick Urata, the lead singer for DeVotchka.

It’s tough to say it, but Hagerman (at least when he’s not doing soundtracks) is part of a much bigger whole. His talent is impressive (it can’t be easy to write and arrange tracks like these) but it’s in much better service with his band. When it comes to classical, I’d rather have Vivaldi, than Hagerman. Otherwise, just give me DeVotchKa. Please.