April 19, 2007

Review: Mapping an Uncharted World

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3.5 out of 5 Stars
The first day I heard Tin Hat’s The Sad Machinery of Spring was the same day it snowed in Ithaca in April, after several teasing days of Spring weather. On that day, the rushing winds and jackhammers on Thurston bridge competed for attention, and as I ducked into my room and clicked “purchase” on iTunes, tinkling fragments of a music box and Carla Kihlstedt’s barely audible violin runs competed in the melody of “Old World,” the mournful opener this new album.
Tin Hat, formerly known as Tin Hat Trio, play an ineffable mixture of jazz, folk, cabaret and contemporary classical music that seamlessly integrates almost every conceivable acoustic instrument; accordions, violins, clarinets and the “ukelin,” a mixture of a ukulele and a violin that was sold door to door in the 1800s. Such a strange detail is fitting for this collection of songs, which sound vaguely historical and “of the old world.” Sad Machinery can sound like the photos in your basement of your great-great-uncle wearing suspenders and smiling, or the photos of immigrants coming through Ellis Island years ago. It can also sound like a bunch of young New York artists experimenting with pianos and trumpets in their Williamsburg loft.
Tin Hat is based in San Fransisco, and just recently added members playing clarinet, harp and trumpet. They are truly all over the map, having released songs with Willie Nelson, members of Phish and other downtown New York musicians. Everyone is young, and yet this music sounds like a paradoxical mixture of an effortless mastery of complex harmony with a sense of “how music used to be,” before guitar amps, synthesizers and perhaps even electricity.
They know that they could be using electronic sounds and are consciously trying to expand in other ways. At times it sounds like this “past” is Eastern Europe, and at others it is perhaps the Old South. It is certainly an achievement that they have blended our idea of folk and classical music, taking what they find appealing about both and establishing their own language of melodies, timbres and aesthetics.
“The Secret Fluid of Dusk” brings to mind an old group of friends jamming on a porch, only to be interrupted by the flurries of atonality of “Blind Paper Dragon.”
“The Land of Perpetual Sleep” would sound at home at a contemporary classical music concert, but “Janissary Band,” following immediately after, could back up the dance sequence in an eccentric off-Broadway musical.
“Dead Season” clicks and clanks and meanders through Latinesque trumpet solos and exchanges between instruments one can only guess the looks of in a eccentric funk romp. I can’t say that no two songs sound the same, but the consistency and originality of Tin Hat’s subtle and suggestive sound world is always impressive. Whereas not being able to tell two tracks apart is usually a flaw, here it is definitely a feat.
Only one of the fifteen songs, “Daisy Bell,” features vocals, and this is generally the norm for this group’s releases. Violinist/vocalist Kihlstedt penned the vocal track on 2004’s Book of Silk, cutely singing over the lush backdrop of strings and clarinets “wouldn’t you miss me, I’d miss you.” This time around, however, it’s not exactly cuteness she is going for.
She is also in an ironically gothic hard rock group called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and you can definitely tell by her schizophrenic lyrics, which weave between the dark and the quaint from measure to measure, creating a few neat, but many annoying, musical moments.
At points her singing almost sounds self-consciously gothic in this off-kilter love ballad, scowling “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer” after referencing a “bicycle built for two.” It’s simply a matter of taste, but I’m not wholly happy with this kind of kitsch.
It’s only a minor blemish however, and the next track, “Drawing Lessons,” is a wonderfully patient lullaby where Kihlstedt shows just how tasteful she can play.
Other critics have suggested that this album is the story of a Polish immigrant coming to America, encountering the new and trying to embrace the new in an exciting counterpoint. This idea is served by the album’s cover, with its solitary white figure holding a bright red rose, backed by fragments of sentences that don’t make any sense, perhaps portraying the linguistic confusion of arrival. This could be it, but I’m content to think that Tin Hat is playing music about themselves, mixing their love for the past, with its kitsch and its sorrows, with their love for the present and its fragmentation and experimentation.
It’s not that they end up transcending both, but rather creating a new place between the Old South, Eastern Europe, and Brooklyn. Sad Machinery is a dream world, using fragments of memory and inventing bizarre new combinations in the way that all of our dreams do.