3hattrio. Lord of the Desert. Okehdokee Records

a0675962829_16The sun blasted and sand blown 3hattrio, denizens of Utah’s Southern Desert, continue to comb their way through the arid and atmospheric landscape which surrounds them on this, their fourth full length album. Their basic line up of guitar, violin and double bass is again enhanced by spectral sounds and effects while the voices are often like shamanistic exhortations with repetition used to induce an almost trance like effect.

At the heart of the band are three musicians (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) with various backgrounds in American folklore, creative art and classical music and who in essence are a string band par excellence but, just as Dr. John was a great r’n’b pianist, they depict their ochre infused landscape with as much invention as Mac Rebbenack did with New Orleans back in his Gris Gris days. There’s a hypnotic lure in the songs here, a temptation to succumb to the incantations and swirling dust storm of sounds the band summon up, the hallucinatory effect of the desert laid bare.

The three musicians’ distinctive styles create the contours of the album. Cannon provides the ballast, the lonesome traveller in the desert, Istock is the Shaman, the beguiler whose incantations and esoteric sounds are almost a peyote experience while Wrankle conjures up an ethereal mistral of sounds evoking the shifting landscapes sculpted by the forces of nature. Lord of the Desert is perhaps the band’s most successful invocation so far as the songs slide into one another, disparate elements fused into a whole as they shift from the banjo led introduction, Dust Devil; the traveller stepping foot into the alien territory forewarned but unabashed, to the closing surrender to the lord of the desert, gravely intoned by Cannon.  In between it’s an Odyssey of sorts amid the sand dunes. Pilgrim bustles with a spritely bass line and fuzzy electric violin and a rare mention of water, normally a good thing in a desert but here a harbinger of danger. Night Sky finds the instruments approximating the sounds of the creatures who venture forth after dark before the discombobulating babble of voices and eerie sound effects of Faith Is In Our Hands, a last cry of the faithful before the pagan desert swoops in which it does in the brace of Istock songs which follow. War ripples with Eastern influences, tabla and oud like sounds which summon up a vision of lysergicly scarred Iraq veterans recreating Operation Desert Storm while Faith can be construed as their attempts to recall an earlier normal life in flashback, all to no avail as I Am returns to the Eastern influences with Istock’s grunt of a voice invoking Imans and infantry grunts.

Cannon’s everyman returns on Wastelands of Yesterday, an extremely parched approximation of The Handsome Family’s bizarre canon before the even more parched instrumental Skeleton Tree which has a Morricone touch to it. Then, like insects buzzing around a flyblown corpse, Wrankle’s violin introduces another Istock invocation as the old man of the desert on Motel,  sounding here like an indecipherable Walter Brennan, a trick repeated on the following Won’t Help (although there’s a soupcon of Dr. John’s voodoo in here) as the spirit guide abandons the traveller who is left to rhapsodise on what could have been in the forge towards the new west on Poor Boys.

Bleached as white as bones in the desert sun, creaking and cracking like stones in the frozen desert night, infused with the memories and voices of those who have travelled and travailed across the sandy wastes, Lord of The Desert is a trip in more ways than one. It is mind expanding in the best sense as 3hattrio offer the listener an opportunity to explore, experience and enjoy their American desert music.

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3hattrio. Solitaire. Okehdokee Records

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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.

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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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