3hattrio. Dark Desert Night

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3hatrio, from Utah, invoke “the cultural traditions of the generations who have worked and lived on the deserts of the American southwest” as the influence for their peculiar brand of acoustic American music. It wears a similar patina as any Appalachian influenced recording but their approach (from their line up; fiddle, banjo, double bass to their slightly experimental touches) is somewhat singular. They describe it as “American desert music” and cite Ansel Adams’ photographs as a pictorial equivalent. The songs on Dark Desert Night are certainly evocative but listening to the album the pictures conjured up are moving ones from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah (and most strikingly Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller despite it being set in the snowy wastes of Washington State). Indeed, this band are ripe for picking for soundtrack work.

The 11 songs here are dark and evocative. There are two takes on traditional songs. The anglicised folkiness of Carry Me Away, a murder ballad recorded by John Lomax way back when betrays its origins with its dum dum di de rae refrain (as satirised by Tom Lehrer on his Irish Ballad). The tale of an 1881 cattle drive on Left Texas, another Lomax field recording, is delivered like a porch spun memory, the narrator recalling long ago events over a narcoleptic string band backing, fly blown and all but exhausted. The effect here is of hearing a Cormac McCarthy western tale told by one of his characters.

To their credit, the self-penned numbers equal or better these snapshots. Recalling at times The Handsome Family 3hatrio cast up scenarios of horses panicking in Sand Storm, the aftermath of a railroad disaster on Get Back Home and winter’s travails on White Pressing. But more often they marry their music to lyrics that just evoke a feeling, a moment, usually of something dreadful or portentous leaving the listener to fill in the gaps. Nothing, Tammy’s Sister and Off The Map are all tremendous pieces, musical jigsaws you have to make sense of although there is able assistance in the excellent playing of the band. A cold, wintry fiddle is the prominent instrument here while the double bass features as much more than a rhythm instrument, burbling and bouncing around the spare banjo and guitar parts. With two vocalists, the pained and strained Greg Istock and the wearied baritone of Hal Cannon, on board there’s a pleasing variety to the album although both are equally able to conjure up a mood. The mood overall being elegiac for a past when the desert was not somewhere to visit but a living presence with folk eking out some kind of existence on its borders.

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