The conceit of Trepanning Trio is that they play only instrumental compositions on classical, traditional or homemade instruments. And while this type of endeavor is usually steeped in academia and its requisite accompanying pretension, this self-dubbed “avant-chamber ensemble” manages to avoid such mantles by taking a garage approach to their material.
The results are badass.
The brainchild of David Mansbach, an autodidact multi-instrumentalist composer and producer (who, Will Hunting-like, learned about classical and world music by raiding local libraries for stacks of dusty CDs which no one ever signed out), TT achieves accessibility by never pretending to be something they’re not. By simply refusing to acknowledge they’re not ethnomusicologists or first-chair orchestra members, they’re free to perform as they see fit, the only rule being that their contributions meet the mettle of Mansbach’s inventive and precise compositions. Not dissimilar from Rachel’s, who take inspiration from worlds larger than their own, TT’s music springs from an almost punk-rock desire to chart unknown territories from musicians who’ve tired of inhabiting all-too familiar states.
Though that proposition is both dangerous and suspect, Trepanning Trio’s offerings are frequently cinematic and arresting, from the dream-like waltz of “I Wonder If They Will Eat The Rest Of Me,” — the lead track from I Am A Crooked Arrow – to The Man Killed The Bird’s subterranean noir, “Lucy Toes (Take 2)” — which evokes Ascenseur pour L’échafaud-era Miles Davis rubbing shoulders with Portishead. The moments are rare between these two albums where you’ll think to yourself that you’ve “heard this all before” — such is the benefit of TT blending their rock, punk, jazz, electronic and classical chops outside normal environs.
I Am A Crooked Arrow feels to be the more concise of Trepanning Trio’s dual release by way of six same-era tracks, which are essentially violin-based kissing sisters capable of being grouped into a single suite. Even so, there aren’t any lazy repetitions to be found here. The haunting “Eleanor Rigby”-like theme of “Lament (Don’t Go Alone)” is related to the post-overture operatic breath of “The Inevitable Return” in primary instrumentation only. The Astor Piazzolla-influenced “The Lightning Rod Salesman (Parts I, II and III)” reinvents itself with startling Mexican horns partway through before descending into an urgent, repetitive theme, which builds then simmers…before all hell breaks loose in a wholly unexpected manner.
Lest the sturm und drang become too much, “Danielle’s Elephant Song” – a jaunty reprise — and the whistle-based “Sherpa’s Song” ensure sunny moments for the listener en route to the album’s standout track, the delicate and very aptly titled “As If Simply Holding Hands Could Keep The World At Bay.”
Having started as a trio and then swelling Broken Social Scene-like to include 14 contributors from North America and beyond, Trepanning Trio visits other lands entirely on The Man Killed The Bird, with instrumentation exploding to include kalimba, viola da gamba, ukulele, flower pots, guzheng and a “long stringed thing.” Compositions are longer and more sophisticated here, but no less engaging.
On “Nocturnal,” a dark exploration in a Shakti-like frame, Jeremy Bleich wields an Oud – a stringed instrument with roots in ancient Mesopotamia, said to be created when Lamech, the sixth son of (the biblical) Adam, was inspired by the shape of his dead son’s bleached skeleton hanging from a tree – now how rock & roll is that? “Seven And Eight,” so named for its alternating time signature, lopes hypnotically for almost two minutes before kicking in, transforming into a disconcerting yet elegant crepuscular symphony. “Freediver,” “Kalimba Song For Baby Rabbits Wearing Owl Masks” and the caravan-esque “Balinese Love Song” are other star attractions. And between “Mountain Alchemy” and the aforementioned “Sherpa’s Song,” one has to wonder if Mansbach might not be on a crusade to recapture common whistling from the likes of Guns n’ Roses, Bobby McFerrin and Peter, Bjorn And John.
Trepanning is the act of drilling a hole into a human skull, exposing the dura matter which covers the brain. Though modern science doesn’t agree, the effect was originally believed to release evil spirits, and more recently, to increase blood volume to the brain, resulting in a perpetual high. To adventurously inclined listeners, the music of Trepanning Trio might very well accomplish both. With the nuanced groaning, knocking and chirping of their instruments and with themes both bold and subtle, Trepanning Trio has harnessed unique, artful experiences with the release of these two albums.
- For fans of Shakti, Mogwai, Rachel’s, Album Leaf, Barry Adamson, et al – 5 Stars
- For people who listen to NPR, shop at Whole Foods, have art museum memberships or have seen Yo-Yo Ma live – 5 stars
- For people who patronize independent coffee houses, ever bought tablas, or have tied themselves to trees– 5 stars
- For musicians with ethnomusicology degrees stuck playing keys for up-and-coming emo bands – 5 stars
- For people who liked Amnesiac and Kid A when they came out and weren’t just saying that – 3 3/4 stars
- For people who bought a Radiohead record, loved it — then bought a Tortoise record and pretended to like it – 1 star
Trepanning Trio performs in support of their dual album release Friday the 13th at the Beachland Ballroom.