Tin Hat, formerly the Tin Hat Trio, is a quartet here, but this remarkable album has a fifth collaborator: the poet e. e. cummings. The Rain Is A Handsome Animal is a song cycle comprised of settings of cummings’s poetry by all four members of the group (there are also three instrumental settings), and features the earthy, distinctive voice of the group’s founding violinist, Carla Kihlstedt. Like all Tin Hat albums, this one offers a contemporary acoustic take on Americana, chamber music and jazz. And while their previous albums have included one or two vocal tracks, with guests like Tom Waits and Willie Nelson, this is the first one to make Kihlstedt’s vocals the center of attention.
The choice of cummings is a natural one for Tin Hat; the American poet held the classical forms of poetry in high regard, but not so high that he neglected the sounds and rhythms of vernacular American English, and the blues. For the musicians in Tin Hat, which includes Mark Orton on guitar and dobro; Ben Goldberg, clarinet; and Rob Reich on accordion and piano, cummings must have seemed a kindred spirit. Elegantly woven through a fabric of typically quirky instrumentation, those texts lead the quartet in several directions. “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is the most clearly rooted in traditional American music, with the poem’s bluesy/folksy quality echoed in Rob Reich’s setting. “Buffalo Bill,” an elegiac text by cummings, is perhaps the most poignant, culminating in an emotional, if ambiguous, brass choir. “little i,” a Kihlstedt setting, features the silvery tone of her e-string violin (a fiddle with four high, thin e-strings that suggests the sound of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle) and some of her most appropriately tremulous singing.