To call Tin Hat Trio “retro” would be an understatement. To call them “quaint” would sell them short. And to call them “jazz” would be misinformed. And yet, oddly, New York’s Tin Hat Trio is all of these. Their music harkens back to a time long before rock music, which makes them idiosyncratic in the age of the remix. And all of their musical compositions are instrumentals, owing much to jazz, without actually being jazz themselves. But what Tin Hat Trio is is a more complicated thing to describe.
The Trio consists of accordionist/pianist Rob Burger, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and guitarist/banjo player Mark Orton. Their music has often been described as modern chamber music, which isn’t too far from the truth. But “chamber music” always implies a sort of stuffy traditionalism that Tin Hat Trio just won’t have anything to do with. Instead, this NY trio dabbles in the aforementioned jazz, Morricone-esque spaghetti western-isms, gypsy folk a la the Kronos Quartet and Tom Waits-like pirate blues. Their newest effort, Book of Silk combines all of these styles into an eclectic, world-weary stew of gothic instrumentals.
Unlike their past couple releases, there are absolutely no vocals on Book of Silk. Though even in the past, guest appearances have been minimal, the likes of Willie Nelson and Tom Waits have lent their talents to the Trio, adding a little more in the line of hooks for listeners who don’t fancy themselves fans of non-vocal music. On Book, however, Burger, Kihlstedt and Orton let the music do the talking. “The Clandestine Adventures of Ms. Merz” is a sly, accordion-driven number that belongs in an Italian murder mystery. “Compay” is a Latin jazz flavored tune in which the Trio pay tribute to the late Compay Segundo. A stronger jazz influence is heard on the highly improvisational, but playful, “Hotel Aurora.”
More suspenseful sounds are heard on “Elliot Carter Family,” which is an unlikely track not to be found in a film. “Things That Might Have Been,” played with slide guitar, tuba and, of course, accordion, is one of the stranger tracks on the album, as the Trio’s choice of instrumentation is bizarre, and yet the song contains a very basic, traditional pop song structure. And, in addition to having a clever name, “Same Shirt, Different Day” is one of the peppiest tracks on the album, and instantly likeable. Though just about everything here is.
It takes a rare group like Tin Hat Trio to turn fans of pop music on to more eclectic and varied styles, like jazz or chamber music, though Tin Hat is neither of these. Finding a name for their style isn’t important. What is important is how captivating and adventurous it is, and seeing as how Book of Silk is their fourth album, how consistently good it is.
Kronos Quartet – Caravan
Rachel’s – Systems:Layers
Andrew Bird – Weather Systems
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.