Tin Hat Trio blew up with the power and exuberance of a firestorm on last year's recording debut Memory Is an Elephant. With an unlikely instrumental core of violin or viola (Carla Kihlstedt), accordion (Rob Burger) and acoustic six-string (Mark Orton), the Bay Area combo innovated genre-defying chamber music that fused the evocative romance of Old World Europe with the provocative edge of postmodern America. An original distillation of influences as far-flung as tango master Astor Piazzolla, angular jazz melodist Thelonious Monk and Balkan folk song, the group's sound was fresh: a no-nonsense shot in the arm for both the classical and jazz establishments. At once familiar and exotic, Memory's tunefulness resonated on a number of levels, and that was its hook. This year's follow-up, Helium, is far less hooky. In a bold but essential move toward establishing identity, the band seems to be distancing itself from the recognizable references that fired the first album. As such, the group is on its way toward developing a voice that's definitively its own.
The characteristic Tin Hat groove, exemplified on the tunes "Brennero," "Anna Kournikova" and the title track on the new CD, goes something like this: Orton lays down a solid rhythmic foundation, which functions in various roles as muted percussion, walking bass or slippery chordal accompaniment to Kihlstedt's gorgeous four-string lead, often channeled as a gypsy whisper or wail, and Burger's evocative squeezebox harmony. It's a recipe that works well when the melody has wings -- as on the title track when Kihlstedt sneaks up on the tune, teasing out its lyrical arc from oblique angles. The melodies of "Brennero" and "Anna Kournikova," however, are less memorable, which underscores the difference between Helium and Memory. After listening to Helium more than a half-dozen times, very few of the 15 tracks seem to stick. Of course, "Helium Reprise," a variation on the intoxicating title cut with bourbon-soaked vocals by Tom Waits, is the easiest hum-along, for obvious reasons, and has predictably been picked up by alternative radio. But there are few others.
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What's odd is that arguably the CD's best songs -- the wonderfully loping "A Life in East Poultney," the rollicking "Big Blue House," spunky "Scrap," surreal "Slip" and dreamy "Old Grey Mare" -- tend to be the shortest in length, clocking in around a minute or two. Like snapshots of paradise beyond the pearly gates, the catchy glory of each of these tracks never quite achieves maximum effect. Perhaps it's the trio's way of teasing listeners for a blowout at the live shows, which are never less than brilliant. Even stranger, lengthier numbers with ample solo room, like the groovy "Esperanto" and "Beverly's March," come across with a self-conscious artfulness in the dynamic shifts, rhythmic syncopation and ambulatory stretching out that undercuts the energy needed to propel the music forward. Tin Hat Trio is clearly vying for an ambitious, original sound. And if Helium's a transitional phase between the embryonic stage of Memory Is an Elephant and a mature vision to come, then the next recording will likely be a revelation.