Mark Orton, guitar, dobro, tenor banjo; Rob Burger, accordion, piano, pump organ, harmonica, marxophone; Carla Kihlstedt, violin, viola; Andrew Borger, drums; Pat Campbell, drum and trombone cells; Trevor Dunn, bass; Jon Evans, bass; Marika Hughes, cello; Tom Yoder; Beverly Wachtel, musical saw; Tom Waits, voice
Tin Hat Trio's Helium is a great sounding record. They conscript a consistently complementary crew of instruments and have good ideas about how to use them in different combinations and with different approaches. These timbral strengths are superbly highlighted by the excellent production of Hans Wendl (and Mark Orton, on the final track). For all the great sounds on Helium, only the last song, with additional musicians, including Tom Waits at his coyest, is great music. There are certainly other nice moments, but nothing compares to the final "Helium Reprise."
The remaining songs share similar musical goals but accomplish them with varying degrees of success. The first song has a good melody, with some nice moments of harmony, great orchestration (this, as previously alluded to, is the Tin Hat's greatest, and ubiquitous, strength) and, wisely, it's short. Many of their songs spend too much time with not enough, or good enough material: improvising over simplistic and boring chord progressions, overusing some very plain melodies. They also have an unfortunate tendency toward kitschy songs that often come off as tame rather than zany.
But not the fantastic "Helium Reprise," the final song on the record. It is simply a superior song (kudos: Mark Orton): fresh, whimsical, but muscular writing augmented by truly evolved orchestration that renders every phrase, chord, solo passage, and vamp, characters in a richer world. If only it were more than one song...
by Eric Roth
Jazz Now Interactive
Copyright Jazz Now, October 2002 issue, all rights reserved