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Published: 2007/01/21
by Pat Buzby

The Sad Machinery of Spring – Tin Hat

Hannibal 1524

There’s a certain style of music which is too elusive for anyone to pin a genre name on it, but many have practiced it. Its instrumentation is primarily acoustic, usually with prominent violin and other colors (accordion and the like) lending a European flavor. Keys are often minor, although there’s usually enough flatted fifths and syncopation to keep grimness at bay. It generally lacks the underpinning of a loud rhythm section. And its happy moments tend to draw on pre-bebop notions of fun rather than modern ones.

Its practitioners got their starts in many places: for instance, there is Fred Frith, who began in British art rock, and Tom Waits, who came from the California singer-songwriter environment. Both of those two found themselves in New York in the 1980s, though, when this style of music became common. Around the same time, there was Camper Van Beethoven, who fused this style with college rock in California. Also California-based, and including players with Frith and Waits connections, are Tin Hat, formerly Tin Hat Trio, who offer their own variation on this style today.

Except for the anomalous vocal “Daisy Bell,” a sinister cousin to “Bicycle Built for Two,” Tin Hat’s music is instrumental. Mark Orton’s acoustic guitar provides the rhythm, while cofounder Carla Kihlstedt’s violin is the primary lead voice. These two provide most of the compositions which define this CD: calm, wistful miniatures. The liveliest pieces have strong jazz hints (“Blind Paper Dragon” is an odd-metered “Caravan” variation, while “Janissary Band” is a fractured “Sweet Georgia Brown”). The name change comes due to the loss of original member Rob Burger, but the replacements fit in: Ara Anderson’s trumpet is an arresting solo voice, while clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s two pieces stand apart from the remaining material, using a darker, thicker brand of counterpoint. Harpist Zeena Parkins appears to be an auxiliary member, but provides eccentric textures on a few tracks.

The band itself acknowledges a filmic quality to its music, and one can almost see the European movie which The Sad Machinery of Spring could accompany. Unlike the typical blockbuster fare, this music doesn’t try to grab you, and offers quiet slices of life rather than bold thrills. Perhaps no one will name this genre, but it’s nice to have a solid new example of it.

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