Tin Hat tackle the poetry of E.E. Cummings

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Since forming in 1997 Bay Area band Tin Hat has gone through a few changes. Originally called Tin Hat Trio, they dropped the "Trio" when founding member Rob Burger left in 2004, to be replaced by clarinetist Ben Goldberg and harpist Zeena Parkins. Since then Parkins has split and so has her replacement, multi-instrumentalist Ara Anderson. Through it all guitarist Mark Orton and violinist Carla Kihlstedt have remained constants, as has the group's wide-open chamber-music aesthetic, which draws from classical, jazz, cabaret, tango, and pop with an erudite, elegant, and often experimental bent.

Those qualities are all in evidence on the excellent new The Rain Is a Handsome Animal (New Amsterdam), recorded with new member Rob Reich (an accordionist and pianist who's worked with trumpeter Darren Johnston in his fine Nice Guy Trio). All 17 tunes were inspired by the poetry of E.E. Cummings. It's not the first time Tin Hat have made music influenced by literature: their 2007 album The Sad Machinery of Spring was a meditation on the life and art of illustrator and writer Bruno Schulz. It's also not the first time the group has used vocals: they've employed guest vocalists such as Tom Waits, Mike Patton, and Willie Nelson. But this is the first time that Kihlstedt (who often sang in the defunct Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) has functioned as a proper front woman in Tin Hat—on Sad Machinery, she added vocals to just one song, but she sings on 15 this time out.

Cummings is a real challenge to set to music, since his poetry depends heavily on how it's laid out on the page, but the members of Tin Hat, all of whom had a hand in composing for this album, took a liberal approach. A couple of pieces are instrumental, and for "So Shy Shy Shy" Kihlstedt transcribed the melody from a reading of the poem by Cummings. The gorgeous songs don't always frame the words straightforwardly, requiring a closer listen than the poems might on their own, but Kihlstedt is marvelous at underlining Cummings's vibrant imagery and trenchant phrasing—in "Buffalo Bill" she turns the lines "Jesus he was a handsome man / And what I want to know is how do you like your blue-eyed boy" into an irresistible pop hook. There are plenty of extended solos, particularly from Kilhstedt's fiery violin and Goldberg's explosive clarinet, and the arrangements are consistently rich and full-bodied. Below you can listen to a track from the album.

Today's playlist:

Julian Siegel Quartet, Urban Theme Park (Basho)
Moha!, Meiningslaust Oppgulp (A Singles Compilation) (Rune Grammofon)
Halme, Innanen, Korpipää, Piknik (Fiasko)
Le Trio Joubran, AsFâr (World Village)
Cortex, Resection (Bolage)

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