Tin Hat: the rain is a handsome animal
New Amsterdam Records

While new to New Amsterdam Records, the San Francisco-based quartet Tin Hat isn't in itself a new project. Formed in in 1997 as Tin Hat Trio and then rechristened Tin Hat in 2004, the outfit had five albums under its collective belts prior to recording the song cycle the rain is a handsome animal. What separates the new release from the others, however, is that it's the first time a Tin Hat recording has largely oriented itself around the singing of violinist Carla Kihlstedt (even if past recordings have included vocals by Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, and Mike Patton in addition to Kihlstedt). The album's lyrics are derived from the poetry of e.e. cummings (yes, the famously lower-case poet), but there's no need to be scared off by the recording's literary connection.

cummings' words act as perfect springboards for the quartet's marvelous flights of fancy and invention. Four would appear to be the perfect number for this outfit, too: enough voices are present to produce a rich chamber sound—Kihlstedt, Mark Orton (acoustic guitar, dobro), Ben Goldberg (clarinets), and Rob Reich (accordion, piano) make up the outfit—but enough space is left to accommodate a clear separation between their individual sounds. Though guest horns and strings musicians appear on the recording (most conspicuously during “buffalo bill”), Tin Hat's quartet sound is a thing of beauty, combining as it does Kihlstedt's luscious strings with Orton's guitar, Goldberg's clarinet, and Reich's accordion. The elegant interplay between the instruments and vocals in “unchanging” makes it one of the album's most arresting moments, something helped along by the prominent role accorded Goldberg's contralto clarinet.

Elements of klezmer, tango, jazz, and even blues inform Tin Hat's music. Reich's playing on “a cloud on a leaf” calls to mind Piazzolla, while the interplay between Kihlstedt's strings and Goldberg's clarinets reveals Tin Hat's connection to klezmer and related musical forms. The intimate tone of the album is established at the outset when “a cloud on a leaf” presents a samba-slash-tango of the kind one would more likely encounter in a small cafe than formal concert hall. Kihlstedt's voice also humanizes the material by being less operatic and conservatory-like and more natural in its delivery, and she's certainly up to the vocal challenge, too, as the upward ascent she effortlessly scales in “2 little whos” makes clear.

The album ranges between dramatic ballads (the lilting “sweet spring,” with its remarkable violin-generated evocation of birdsong, and “human rind”), theatrical set-pieces (one could easily picture the Weill-esque “if up's the word” and “open his head” performed on some off-Broadway stage), a rapturous song of playful character (the charming “2 little whos”), and even a reasonably credible stab at raw country-blues (“anyone lived in a pretty how town”). A particularly beautiful moment emerges during the funereal dirge “buffalo bill” in the vocal line “and what I want to know is / how do you like your blue-boyed boy, Mister Death” that follows the declamatory horns episode.

The group's virtuosic command of their respective instruments is displayed throughout, but perhaps never more thrillingly than in the driving title track when the music fluidly oscillates between solo and ensemble passages. Each musician stands out but special mention must be made of Kihlstedt, given the ferocious violin playing she adds to the extended workout “the enormous room” and “grapefruit.” Anything but precious, the rain is a handsome animal impresses as a riveting and perfectly accessible collection whose seventeen songs reward repeated visits.

September 2012