A work-in-progress since releasing the first of its five studio albums in 1999, Tin Hat blends tango, Eastern European, country-and-western, and other musical idioms into a readily identifiable ensemble sound. When Rob Burger (accordion, keyboards) departed after 1994’s Book of Silk, co-founders Mark Orton (guitar, dobro, banjo) and Carla Kihlstedt (violin, viola, trumpet violin) brought in clarinetist Ben Goldberg, harpist Zeena Parkins, and multi-instrumentalist Ara Anderson (trumpet, pump organ, piano, glockenspiel, percussion). On Foreign Legion, the group’s first live album, Goldberg and Anderson settle in as full- fledged members. Recorded at a festival in Mallorca, Spain, in 2005, and a Berkeley, California, folk club in 2008, Foreign Legion flows like a suite of miniature now- melancholy, now-jaunty soundtracks for imaginary westerns, funerals, and dances.
Without the usual studio overdubs, without vocals, and with only one guest musician, percussionist Matthias Bossi, Tin Hat sounds less like a densely textured orchestra and more like a fluidly melodic gypsy-cowboy-klezmer-chamber-jazz quartet. The intimate mix captures the panoply of distinct timbres, from Orton’s slacked acoustic guitar strings and Kihlstedt’s mournful, scratchy fiddle to Goldberg’s smooth rumbling reeds and Anderson’s bop-mariachi trumpet.