DECEMBER 14, 2004

How do you characterize an album that includes an ultra-slow version of "Purple Haze," a rendition of "Stand By Your Man" in which the lyrics are spoken, rather than sung, accompanied by a wahified electric guitar, and an opening tune featuring lyrics in Vietnamese?

The answer, I suppose, is that you don't even try. You simply listen and let the music take you where it will. At the end of the journey, you won't be sorry-for you will have gone where no other album has taken you before. Indeed, this is one of the most innovative and intriguing records I've ever heard.

Let's start with that rendition of "Purple Haze." When I say slow, I mean slowwwww. Listening to the opening bars feels almost hallucinogenic, and the dreamy vocals-performed by Virginia Beach resident Martha Roebuck-make the contrast to Hendrix even starker. Undoubtedly, this will strike some listeners as sacrilege. But as Verdun's leader Neal Barnard observed in an interview, Hendrix himself distorted our national anthem almost beyond recognition-and in doing so, he created a version that is now as iconic as the original. I'm not suggesting that Verdun's version of "Purple Haze" will achieve the same status. But it works. Barnard is to be congratulated not only for artistic chutzpah but for his achievement.

The same can be said of "Stand By Your Man"-although unlike the version of "Purple Haze," which is true to the spirit of the original, Verdun gives the Tammy Wynette classic an ironic, post-modernist twist.

The seven other songs on the disc are Barnard originals-and the performance of them covers quite a range of styles, from New Age to hard rock, fusion, world music and beyond.

The most beautiful selection in the mix may be "Song to a Sparrow." Set aloft by Roebuck's ethereal vocals and Barnard's tender lyrics, the song floats as gently as a feather on a spring breeze. (More specifically, it reminded me of the rarefied atmosphere of Rivendell, home of the elves in Lord of the Rings.) Backing from Virginia Symphony cellist Carter Melin and guitarist Sam Dorsey, who is also based in Hampton Roads, provide an added dimension.

The album, which also features an excellent local drummer, Mike Stetina, incorporates many other moods and colors-too many to go into here. That's just as well, I suppose. I'll let them take you by surprise. The important point is that none of these innovations feel contrived. Barnard, who's based in Washington, D.C., is clearly a writer and musician with extraordinarily subtle sensibilities and a knack for grasping musical essences. I look forward to his next venture with great anticipation.