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Tin Hat Trio Book of Silk Review

Album. Released 10 August 2004.  

BBC Review

New York eclectics return, with guests including Zeena Parkins.

Peter Marsh 2004

Tin Hat Trio are one of those bands that must give marketing executives and record shop employees nightmares; even in our eclectic, post-modern times they remain firmly uncategorisable.

The Trio reckon they play 'freewheeling chamber music for the 21st century', which is as good a description as any (though I've yet to see it as a section in my local HMV). Using a bewildering array of acoustic instruments from banjo to accordion to violin and (ahem) the marxophone, Rob Burger, Carla Kihlstedt and Mark Orton make music that's rich and accessible butcomes with a slightly subversive edge.

Fans of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra will find much to entertain them here. Though THT lack the typically English self-deprecation of Simon Jeffes' band, they draw on much the same sources; 20th Century Classical, folk music (principally bluegrass, French chanson and a touch of bossa or tango) and elements of the avant garde. It's a grab-bag, but one that seems to work.

For this record the trio are augmented by tuba, occasional clarinets and (most notably) Zeena Parkins' harp. Despite the absence of percussion,this sinuous music packs a sizeable rhythmic punch. At its best, its myriad influences are transcended to produce something that sounds like something you know, but played like you've never heard before.

There's a definite cinematic feel at work. "Pablo Looks Back" comes fitted with Morricone-esque whistling (and some marxophone action too). "Compay", despite being a tribute to the late Cuban singer Compay Segundo, could conceivably be lifted from a Jeunet et Caro film. Here too,expectation is played with. Ripples of prepared piano and guitar lurk underneath gorgeous close harmony strings; dimly you become aware of a distant, sub bass thump that'll have you thinking that someone's digging up your street, till you realise it's coming from the CD player.

"Elliott Carter Family" and "Light Black from Pole to Pole" offer the most confrontational moments (with Parkins' prepared harp clanging away beautifully like a cosmic gamelan). But the album closes with the unspeakably lovely "Empire of Light"; over strings that sound like they've beeen beamed in from an RKO musical, Kihlstedt sings a sweet lullaby. It's too cute to be entirely serious, but it is beautiful.

Freewheeling chamber music for the 21st century, indeed. Recommended.

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