The dust has barely settled on 3hattrio‘s Dark Desert Night (reviewed here) and here are Hal Canon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle already back with their third album Solitaire, the arid imagery inspired by their red-rock southern Utah base carrying over into a title derived, as the sleeve notes state, from Edward Abbey’s 1968 book about dryland ecosystems, Desert Solitaire.
Their stringband sound is again parched, but hot and vibrant, Cannon saying they set out to make this their dance album (“even if was the dance of a Scorpion”), opening with the throbbing Texas Time Traveler which sets new lyrics – croaky mid-song scat included – to a traditional African-American number. From here they move to border country gospel with Rose, its mandolin and violin backing conjuring the widescreen vistas of classic Westerns, getting bluesier on the sparse, lost love desolation of What Can You Do.
There are two non-originals here, the first something of a genre-blending surprise in the shape of a bluegrass slurringly sung restyling of Bob Marley’s hypnotic Get Up Stand Up with Cannon on claw-hammer banjo. Likewise, while the second, album closer Bury Me Not, may be more within expectations, they trio still put their own spin on this traditional cowboy tune with a bone dry, slow and somber arrangement dominated by brooding skeletal acoustic bass and ghostly electronic wind effects with the faint distorted sound of what may well be a funeral prayer in the fading moments.
The other credits are shared between Cannon and Istock, both together and individually, Mojave a (save for some scat singing towards the end) pizzicato bass, banjo and fiddle instrumental, its musical framework seemingly extending into the percussive itch of the riff circling Should I, the blues lyrics feeling almost extemporised.
Gypsy jazz takes over for the huskily sung Range, a violin serenaded love song to the landscape, and similar nomadic textures carve a passage through the lyrically ominous Blood River with its heavy-lidded vocals (imagine a more nasal Jagger at his most narcotic), persistent banjo figure and wah-wah fiddle effects.
The last of the self-penned material is Istock’s Eddy Mesa, the percussive bass line taking on an Eastern tabla-like colouring to the point that, come the chanting chorus of “And he’ll change like the morning, And he’ll change back to something And he’ll change for a moment”, the comparison that unexpectedly comes to mind is Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Debora before, three minutes in it transforms into a violin-swathed starry desert night instrumental coda.
Inventive and experimental, but still firmly within the territory they have marked out for themselves, to echo Abbey’s remark how there is no shortage of water in the desert, just the right amount for what it needs, the trio are a musical irrigation channel.
In The Desert with 3hattrio (Short Documentary)
Solitaire is Out Now via Okehdokee Records
3hattrio will be on their European Tour in February 2017 including Celtic Connections on Sat 4 February, 7:30 pm at The Mackintosh Church.