This third album from Utah band 3hattrio doggedly pursues their concept of American Desert Music. The trio (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) live and work in the desert of Southern Utah, the band forming when they chanced upon each other in a town called Virgin in the middle of the Zion National Park, jammed and then set out on this stony path. Unlike previous bands such as Giant Sand who were tagged with the desert rock tag only to disown it (Howe Gelb prefers “erosion rock” apparently) 3hattrio make a conscious attempt to translate the alien landscape around them into words and music. Their second album Dark Desert Night was inspired by the sharp crack of desert nights, the songs dark and evocative. On Solitaire they are basted in the heat of the day, the cover showing 3 hats on 3 chairs, a nearby tree shedding shade in the opposite direction.
The album title is borrowed from environmentalist Edward abbey’s 1968 book Desert Solitaire. Not having read the book and never having been in a desert I can only imagine what a solid wall of heat and light is like but fortunately there are other writers who have taken it upon themselves to describe it such as Cormac McCarthy’s powerful lines from Blood Meridian.
“The sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.”
This play of light and colour with the heat almost visible in the air is subtly manifested by the songs and music on Solitaire. It’s a softly shimmering album, the fiddle and double bass almost palpable while the guitars and banjos crackle like a batshit old prospector who has spent too long in the hills. The vocals inhabit an age old America reflecting the travellers who voyaged over these sands as they went westward ho while the primitive scatting on the opening Texas Time Traveller is reminiscent of the Native Americans displaced in this ruthless migration.
When Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Dark Desert Night we reckoned that 3hattrio were ripe for soundtrack plucking and this is maintained on Solitaire. One can imagine McCarthy’s border desperadoes riding into hallucinatory settlements and hearing these songs sung by itinerant musicians who may be real or not. Rose limps along with an air of despair, an elegy for these badlands, Mojave is an intricately weaved jig of sorts with banjo leading over atmospheric fiddle wails that is somewhat shamanistic. Blood River, Eddy Mesa and Should I all display the disparate elements of the band, folk, jazz, experimental as they meander like a 19th Century version of Beefheart’s Magic Band. Even on a song that is more conventional and descriptive such as Range there’s a spookiness that’s almost akin to that of The Handsome Family. The album closes on a traditional note with a version of Bury Me Not that is almost ethereal and in its nocturnal feel a fitting close to the end of days spent under a blazing sun. The one quibble on the album is the band’s cover of Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up which despite a fine interpretation is probably just too familiar to sit easily in these unfamiliar surroundings.
All in all Solitaire is a worthy successor to Dark Desert Night and the good news is that 3hattrio are coming to Glasgow as part of Celtic Connections playing The Mackintosh Church on 4th February.