Culled from concert dates in 2003 and 2008, Foreign Legion throws you into the industrial-grade Cuisinart Tin Hat uses to mash up all their musical influences. That sounds quite violent, but it's actually just the opposite.
Mark Orton's opening guitar figure on "Helium" could be jazz, or maybe country, or even acoustic rock. What it does do is creep in like early morning fog and captivate you even as it makes way for Carla Kihlstedt, whose fiddle is pure Stephane Grappelli. Ben Goldberg's clarinet has got some Gypsy jazz in it, too, but Ara Anderson's pump organ adds a texture that feels like European folk music. As the light, floating piece proceeds to reveal itself, you realize that Legion is one of those square pegs that won't go in the round hole without assistance from a very large sledgehammer.
Since Legion is an unpredictable funhouse, the Zombie Clowns marching tune "Big Top" is perfectly appropriate. Goldberg's mournful "Asterisk" and Kihlstedt's hypnotic "A Fata Morgana" does give credence to iTunes' insistence that this disc should be qualified as "Classical," but Orton (who wrote most of the tracks) puts topspin on the Old West with "The Last Cowboy" and "New West"; the latter tune is like the title track in that it puts you in the middle of the desert, except one scene is in Nevada while the other's in Tunisia.
Some of the subtler aspects of the disc call for duct-taping headphones to your head so you can get the full audio experience. Mathias Bossi's percussion on "Compay" can barely be heard, but since it's the first "traditional" foundation on the date, its impact is quite substantial. If you went with the duct-tape idea, be prepared to dive for the volume button, because Anderson's trumpet is a pissed-off 10-year old, spitting and screaming. Anderson also uses a glockenspiel to accent "Hotel Aurora" as Kihlstedt makes her violin whine like a lost handbag dog.
This set has many parallels to Bill Frisell's History, Mystery, except that disc's dearth of cohesion was frustrating as hell. As crazy and random as Foreign Legion seems to be, there's a stunning brilliance to the quiet madness Tin Hat creates. And if they need a live audience to reach these levels, then somebody keep them on tour!