These guys don’t need any more laudatory quotes from me. Their press kit contains four tightly-packed pages full of pithy statements about how “debonair” and “finely-tuned” and “puzzling” and “melancholy” and “beautiful” their music is. These quotes are well-earned; they’re all on the money, and this new record is probably the purest distillation of their world music-flavored instrumental attack. I’m just not sure I’m going to be able to sum up Book of Silk any better than that-in a word, it’s daunting.
So let’s talk about why music like this is so uncool these days. I blame Tortoise. Remember just a few years ago, when Tortoise and “post-rock” ruled the indie world, and you couldn’t swing a dead carp without hitting another instrumental group that merged all sorts of world sounds with electronica and rock and soundtrack sounds? It wasn’t that long ago, you guys, I know your memories aren’t that short. Clinton was president, the home run record was still held by Roger Maris… nothing? Man, y’all are YOUNG.
Anyway, that scene faded, and it was all Tortoise’s fault. They got too big, they were on everybody else’s records, TNT (which was a damn good record) didn’t impress people in the same way Millions Now Living Will Never Die did, tons of Chicago-based groups sprung up only to end up being boring, and then boom, it was all over and we turned to the whiny comfort of emo indie suckitude.
But we have a couple of really good bands still out there, and this is the best of them. On heroically brave things like 2002’s The Rodeo Eroded (with its fancy guest vocal surprise by Willie Nelson) and Helium from 2000, they’ve proven that they owe less to the Tortoise monster and more to their own vision thing. I’m not the expert on this band, but I’m going to say that this is their most beautiful melancholy puzzling finely-tuned debonair disc yet, and that you’ll love it if you hear it, as long as you’re not afraid of a little beauty.
Tin Hat Trio understands that the secret to music without words is swing, and here they swing plenty. “Hotel Aurora” has Django and Grappelli written all over it: Carla Kihlstedt’s violin fights with Rob Burger’s accordion while Mark Orton vamps underneath it all like a gypsy. These three understand each other enough to not have to worry about where they jump in and when and why. “Things That Might Have Been” is a twisted cowboy shipwreck, a shifty dobro boogie with soaring lines by Burger and Kihlstedt that clash and contrast with each other so well that they might have been scripted that way as a romantic comedy. Oh yeah, and the deal is sealed by Bryan Smith’s tuba underneath. (Okay so sometimes they’re not a trio, deal with it, they mostly are though.) There is a lot of good old American longing here, hope contained within a solo, dusty dreams exposed as the only way we know we’re alive, the universe in a handful of bow resin.
Okay that sounded pretentious. I’m just trying to keep up with the big boys. But the music here is far from pretentious. Which is kind of impossible, considering that it’s twisted instrumental songs in 2004, but it’s true. They all have a pulse (without actually having a drummer), they all move under their own power, and they’re all understandable both emotionally and musically. Even a track with the very Tortoise-esque (or Of Montreal-esque) title of “The Clandestine Adventures of Ms. Merz” moves along without disappearing up its own butthole; it’s full of mystery and imagination, a lurchy investigative romp, and I could totally see Daphne and Freddy making out to this. “Light Black From Pole to Pole” is about the most annoying, with a continuo of violin-made seagulls, but the long langorous stretches of accordion by Burger keep it afloat, and creepy. Other than that, these songs lack lofty “oh look at us we’re sooooooo arty” fakeness, and get by on beauty and innovation.
Take “Compay”, a rumination on Cuban musician Compay Segundo, which deconstructs són without losing the snaky groove. Or the adorable “March of the Smallest Feet,” which sounds the way Christmas morning used to feel when you were six. Remember that feeling? They nail it. (There isn’t a track here they don’t nail, so that’s kind of deceptive. Still, though.) Of course, after about a minute, the track turns dark, so maybe it’s Christmas morning in a scary old house full of ghosts who may or may not have your best interests at heart. Oh, and there’s a siren-like whine up above it all, so maybe there’s been a murder. Maybe someone killed Santa Claus. Anyway, it’s an ace track.
As is “The Longest Night,” which contains more beauty than a high school yearbook in Sao Paulo, or “Lauren’s Lullaby”, a tearjerkin’ cowboy-lope waltz with some wide-ass open spaces between Orton’s guitar notes, or “Red Hook Stoop”, where some barrelhouse tack piano gets all expressionistic and then everything disappears for a while before building back up. Oh and “Invisible Mobile”, on which Carla Kihlstedt proves that she is just as good a violinist as any symphony bastard out there.
O it’s all too cool. Get over your aversion to music without words. This is stunning and hard-edged and soft-hearted and cool and exciting music. This is the sound of three people who understand the human soul.