San Francisco-based quartet Tin Hat released their sixth studio album, the rain is a handsome animal, August 28, 2012 on New Amsterdam Records. The 17-track song cycle is based on the visionary modernist poetry of American poet E.E. Cummings and, for the first time in the band’s history, centers largely around the remarkable singing of Tin Hat violinist Carla Kihlstedt. Each of the group’s members channeled their relationship with Cummings’ work to contribute their own unique pieces for the project, showcasing themselves as both imaginative composers as well as riveting performers. The resulting work is at once universally accessible and hard-to-define–drawing from both high and low art forms such as folk, classical, Americana, and countless other traditions–which, in essence, is exactly what makes the project emblematic of Tin Hat as well as Cummings’ work itself. The music of Tin Hat is born of the long-standing friendships and deep musical connections of members Carla Kihlstedt (violins, viola, voice), Mark Orton (acoustic guitar, dobro), Ben Goldberg (clarinets), and Rob Reich (accordion, piano). This sacred kinship is the reason handsome animal feels organically cohesive despite that each member took turns separately with the pen; each peice was collaboratively refined over the course of two years while the ensemble was on tour before being taken into the studio in May 2011. Although this isn’t Tin Hat’s first album featuring vocals (past vocalists have included Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, and Mike Patton in addition to Kihlstedt), it does mark the first time the group has focused a project almost entirely on Carla’s moving singing. Intimate, warm, and robust, her voice perfectly complements Cumming’s tough-minded words, all set to some of the most beautiful and ambitious compositions in the group’s history.
Cummings’ poetic language is a natural fit for Tin Hat’s aesthetic; some of his poems read like lyrics to folk songs, while others are spare and abstract, leaving ample room for musical interpretation. As such, some of the album’s pieces explore his poetic phrasing (such as Reich’s art-song so shy shy shy, which is written around a melodic transcription of Cummings’ own reading), or the way in which the lyrics display on the page (such as Goldberg’s stirring unchanging), while some are less direct meditations, such as the three instrumental works including Orton’s up beat, jazz-tinged title track. The album sways different ways, from Orton’s plaintive cry on buffalo bill and Reich’s catchy folk on if up’s the word, to the surreal setting made by Kihlstedt’s e-string violin on little i and Goldberg’s cinematic closer now (more near ourselves than we). But no matter where it turns, at its core the rain is a handsome animal resounds with the profoundly perfect union of these inspired minds, blurring the lines between composition and poem.