Hard on the heels of 2015’s eyebrow-raising Dark Desert Night comes 3hattrio’s third full-length release Solitaire. It’s named for Desert Solitaire, the classic 1968 book about dryland ecosystems by Edward Abbey. This stringband trio from the red-rock desert of southern Utah is intimately familiar with that landscape, and they continue to translate its stark beauty into haunting melodies and lyrics.
I’m going to call this album a classic-in-waiting, on the strength first of all of the opening track “Texas Time Traveler.” It’s based on a traditional African-American stringband song but 3hat’s Hal Cannon and Greg Istock have come up with some new lyrics. And the trio (Cannon on vocals and banjo, Istock on vocals and double bass, and Eli Wrankle on fiddle) have juiced it up a bit musically. It’s now a desert blues anthem for the 21st century, complete with Istock’s scatting outro. You can hear the whole thing here on The Bluegrass Situation.
Most of their material is original or traditional, but Solitaire ends with a haunting reharmonized cover of the traditional “Bury Me Not” and one other surprise. Here’s a video of 3hattrio covering an old reggae standard at the 2015 Moab Folk Festival.
The trio has added a few more atmospheric touches on this album, especially on Wrankle’s fiddle. He plays some particularly psychedelic fills on “Should I,” Istock’s superb song that lopes along with foot percussion from the bassist plus a claw-hammer banjo lead from Cannon in addition to those woozy fiddle lines. You’re never sure what Istock’s songs are “about,” but this one seems to deal with the constancy of change and a questioning heart’s response to it.
Cannon’s songs tend to be more lyrically straightforward, like “What Do You Do,” a song about lost love whose tempo reflects the hopeless plod of feet through deep desert sand; and “Range,” his Gypsy-jazz love song to the “range” part of the West’s basin-and-range geology.
There are several moments on Solitaire that make the hair on my neck stand up. One (which I share with Cannon) is the deep bluesy line “Oh, early in the morning,” from “Texas Time Traveler.” Another is the chanted chorus of “change …” behind Istock’s scatting on the false fade-out of his epic “Eddy Mesa.” Add to those the wah-wah effect on Wrankle’s fiddle when it comes in on the chorus of “Blood River,” whose lyrics offer an eerie invitation to the stay-at-home type to come explore the mysteries of the desert.
3hattrio‘s music is as bracing, invigorating and intriguing as the desert that it springs from. They’ve carved out a niche of their own from which they continue to create highly specific songs with a sense of place and persona that speak to universal conditions.
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