Dark Desert Night
(Okehdokee, 2015)

In the rural Upper Midwest, of which I have much experience, occasionally you will hear older folks pronounce something "different." It's an expression -- ordinarily stated in full as "That's different" -- without hard and fast meaning. It's deliberately ambiguous and ambivalent, its purpose being not to tie the speaker to ironclad judgment or, alternately, to an unfavorable opinion for which he or she may not want to be held accountable. It also arises from a deep-seated Midwestern tradition, frequently parodied by Garrison Keillor, of courtesy and non-confrontation.

Dark Desert Night is certainly different in all meanings of the adjective. The group responsible consists of three men wearing hats (in the arcane meaning, let us be clear: headwear with brims; not, as in today's usage, with bills on what were once known as "caps," a term younger readers may not recognize). The needlessly contrived spelling "3hattrio" translates into "Three Hat Trio." If you've heard of one member, it will be Hal Cannon, who is known to those of us who care about such matters as a Western folklorist and oldtime musician. He plays guitar and banjo and does some of the singing. Greg Istock (acoustic bass) delivers the remaining vocals, and Eli Wrankle operates a stringed instrument identified here as "violin." Which indeed it is. If you thought the barren landscapes on the CD and the group's insistence that this is "desert music" -- all three members live in Utah -- hint at rural fiddle melodies, you would be mistaken.

The principal nod to Cannon's musical past is "Carry Me Away," which listeners schooled in folk music will recognize as the darkly comic murder ballad "Marrowbones"; the melody is often associated with "Jackaro." It's done fairly straightforwardly. Much, albeit not quite all, of the rest of the album turns to meanderings both verbal and instrumental. I presume the failure at times to set out coherent narratives serves the purpose of creating an abstractly poetic, jazz-inflected atmospherics. If this is supposed to trigger visions of desert surroundings, I must say it's hard to imagine this kind of sound on anything other than the stage of an artsy nightclub. I think it's safe to deduce that two of the three guys are only passingly rooted in traditional Western music.

Each listener will respond or not respond as he or she is inclined. All I can say is that in my hearing some of this is indeed interesting and moving, the rest not so much. I can understand, of course, why Cannon in particular would have wanted to do something, er, different. Whatever else it may or may not be, it is that.

music review by
Jerome Clark

31 October 2015

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