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The fact that Tin Hat is no longer a trio and that founding member Rob Burger left the group in 2004 shouldn't be such a jolt. The band has always expanded and shape-shifted, working with such guests as Tom Waits and Willie Nelson on previous records. But for their fifth release, they've formally dropped the "trio from their name and added multi-instrumentalist Ara Anderson, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and harpist Zeena Parkins to the lineup, all of whom contribute compositions.
The group has enough musicianship that the numbers don't really matter. Even as a trio, the musicians played enough different instruments and did so so well together that they always sounded more like a cohesive group than a trio of individuals anyway. As far as instrumentation goes, Anderson comes closest to filling the space left by Burger with his pump organ, toy piano and celeste, but he also plays trumpet and baritone horn, allowing unusual tin-hat moments of horn-led ensemble.
In addition to her violins, Carla Kihlstedt plays celeste, bowed vibes and Ukelin (a strange, multi-stringed instrument that's bowed with one hand and plucked with the otherand was sold door-to-door). Mark Orton plays guitar, banjo and dobro as well as pump organ, auto-harp and Marxophone (a sort of hammered zither with a similar biography to the ukelin). But Tin Hat's trick, on The Sad Machinery of Spring, as always, is to take unusual instrumental voices and write evocative, often melancholy songs for them.
Tin Hat's strong setting in Americana continues on The Sad Machinery, even though the album's dedication and a poem in the liners suggest Polish origins. At best, it's the soundtrack of a Polish immigrant who fails to find the promised riches in the New Worldand if that's too literal, or in any event anyway, it's beautifully played, evocative music.
Track Listing: Old World; The Secret FLuid of Dusk; Blind Paper Dragon; Dionysus; Daisy Bell; Drawing Lessons; The Book; Dead Season; Black Thursday; The Tailor's Dummies; Dionysus II; The Land of Perpetual Sleep; Janissary Band; The Comet; Intractable.