The Michigan-based instrumental outfit Scavenger Quartet, led by multi-instrumentalist and automated instrument inventor Frank Pahl, follows its sea creature-themed 2005 album “We Who Live on Land” with a new full-length album oddly centered on a variety of headwear, entitled “Hats.” Those familiar with Pahl’s solo efforts or his work with ensembles such as Little Bang Theory, which only uses children’s toy instruments, will recognize many of his trademark sonic details, such as the use of bells and melodicas, called his “autopercussion.”
Such distinctive methods make “Hats”hard to pin down or cleanly associate with any genre, although there are hints toward jazz approaches. The most obvious is the “The Phrygian Cap,” possibly the album’s most swinging track, distinguished for being in 5/4 time and having a Dave Brubeck Quartet “Take Five”-esque vibe. “Julia’s Dirty Secret” also has jazz-flavored drumming from seasoned percussionist Doug Gourlay, but it’s far from conventional, with nice incongruous touches such as banjo plinks, warm and low euphonium tones, and struck and plucked behind-the-bridge string notes.
One of the more unusual pieces is “The Mercurial Temper of the Mad Hatter,” which has an endearing messiness and carries a distinct character, aided by bowed upright-bass lines with an eccentric charm from Joel Peterson (of Immigrant Suns). Reedist and pianist Tim Holmes has an understated yet amiable style on the saxophone and flute, enhancing the lightness of the proceedings.
Most tracks on the album saunter along at a moderate pace, and a few more tempo variations would have been welcome, such as the brisk standout track “Angles Are Attitudes,” which jogs along in 7/4 time, anchored by a two-note piano pattern and imbued with a lively spirit. When listening to Scavenger Quartet, the eclectic chamber-pop-rock outfit Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Martin Denny’s exotica come to mind, because of an uncommon, transportive atmosphere that is evoked. But in the case of Scavenger Quartet, that sonic destination isn’t rooted in any genre or time period, bringing the listener to a comforting, yet somewhat strange and gentle world.