Hazmat Modine has the soulful, scruffy feel of traditional music, but the magic of the band is that it never quite lands in one specific tradition. On their fifth album, the band continues to call out from its unique musical territory that co-locates with American genres. But it does so with some sleight-of-hand, introducing instruments from other cultures as well as concocting its powerful songs with varying mixes of wise man and wiseguy.
The album announces itself on “Give It All Away” with a brass fusillade giving way to frontman Wade Schuman’s episodic storytelling about shedding a life’s accumulations, alternating slices of earnestness and humor. “Threw away my drawings/made as a child/gave away my jokes/just for a smile/I could live without it/I could live alone/throw out the baby/shut off the phone.”
“Late at Night” sounds like a classic electric blues tune, but the wry humor of Schuman and his songwriting partner Eric Della Penna leavens the song’s weighty wisdom; one gets the sense that the sardonic narrator is attenuated but by no means broken. “Late at night, well, we cried/Late at night, well, we’ll be fine/Late at night, well, we’ll be trying/To make good.”
As instrumentalists, the collective always plays with soul and muscle, traditional music bubbling at a rock-level of energy. The players are a variety of ages and backgrounds, coming from jazz, rock and roots genres. In a way the band is a tribute to all the breathtakingly talented musicians in New York who are not household names but still play the shit out of their instruments day in and day out.
On “Paulina” the group commingles a sliding lute-guitar, hand claps, and rolling percussion for a spare but sinewy rhythm – a song that has the gloss of an old timey country or blues tune, but reveals itself to be a sui generis mix of shouted non sequitur phrases. “I got a Christian war bride/she got a legal team/she got the Union Carbide/I got the laser beam./She gonna take the sunshine right off the Christmas tree/She wrecked the four-door hatchback/she wrote the tragedy.” The result is a loopy but surprisingly stirring paean to a mysterious muse.
A highlight of their live shows, the instrumental “Delilah’s Lament” spotlights Daisy Castro’s fluid and emotionally expressive fiddle playing with percussionist Patrick Simard simultaneously tapping out an urgent rhythm on Castro’s strings with chopsticks (what I thought at first was the sound of a cimbalom), creating a tune that ebbs and flows as it takes flight through shifting musical landscapes.
The album ends brightly with “Walk It Off,” a foray into gospel-style choral singing. For this rousing final cut, the band reverts to its twin harmonica soloing. The arrangement alternatives between verses with a quiet but compelling rhythm interspersed with a four-person harmony. “I’d walk a hundred miles/to clear away the smoke/From fires in the distance that we made./And when I need some mending/For a spirit that’s been broke,/I’ll take it on the side with all the shade/Well, I’m off to walk, walk it off-off-off.”
Hazmat Modine began life in the 1990s with an unusual lineup of two front harmonicas, echoing early 20th century harmonica bands. Subsequently it has kept a signature sign with Schuman’s harmonica featured through many of its songs (a Modine is a large industrial heater that blows out a lot of hot air). But the band also added textures from its other excellent players and guest musicians. The band’s core has tapped New York’s talented pool of musicians who commute between the jazz and rock scenes, players like Joe Daly on tuba, Reut Regev on trombone, Steve Elson on sax and Daisy Castro on fiddle.
On Bonfire, Schuman continues to pull great and surprising guest musicians out of his bag of tricks. The band has collaborated with Tuvan throat singers, among others, but this time it folds in the balafon playing of Mali-born Balla Kouyaté for an unexpected element that still fits in. Another continuing Hazmat tradition is the use of atypical instruments; here Schuman plays the distinctive-sounding Chinese hulusi flute on “Sharpening Knives.”
In his other life, Schuman is a talented visual artist and his works are rendered in precise, painstaking detail. Likewise, in song after Hazmat song, it is apparent that the arrangements have been carefully gone over and over again; these are not just seat-of-your-pants jam sessions despite the playful, ramshackle vibe.
Though Hazmat Modine’s nominal ancestry is based on folk traditions, careful listening shows that the band’s music is a thoughtful refinement of that global heritage. Schuman and company are not folk musicians—no blacksmith cum fiddler here—they are artists channeling the egalitarian heart of roots music for everyday folks; preserving its urgency while making it sophisticated too. That said, they are also obviously committed to a fundamental and often overlooked aspect of much folk music: to be a place where listeners can put their troubles aside, replenish themselves and just find a reason to smile.