If anyone can make the avant-garde friendly, Carla Kihlstedt can — she has a résumé that musicians twice her age would envy. Her band Tin Hat Trio has released three critically acclaimed albums, she’s played with heavyweights like John Zorn, and major orchestras have commissioned her to compose new works. Through it all, she’s remained musically adventurous yet aware of her audience.
This, her solo debut, is a remarkably assured, swaggering release; it ambles through avant-garde territory without getting bogged down. Its expansive yet rarefied atmosphere undercuts almost any adjective a critic could use. The release is at times accessible and at times inaccessible, classical-sounding yet rooted in contemporary music. Tracks are generally quite short and impressionistic, but this is a mature and (for the most part) fully realized album.
It’s rare for such an excellent musician to also be an accomplished composer, but Kihlstedt is — and she uses that skill to weave familiarity and discomfort in ways that can be heartbreaking. She puts her finger directly on the heart of pathos in the minimalist “Last Resort.” The quickly sketched story of displacement feels authentic, and it lingers. The story could be happening in a village in Eastern Europe two centuries ago, or yesterday in the United States.
The heart of the album — and some of the best songs — centers on love and loss. Kihlstedt has an eerie way of evoking children’s nursery rhymes and turning them into hymns of disappointment. The broken love story of “History” uses the old “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” rhyme to startlingly good effect. That song is buttressed by “Another Day,” one of the most gorgeous songs on the album. Kihlstedt’s violin phrasing seems to have migrated to her voice; the subtlety of her singing is remarkable for an almost entirely untrained singer.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of Two Foot Yard is the instrumentation. How often do most of us sit down and listen to the violin? Or violin and voice, for that matter? The tight ensemble of violin, cello, and percussion is effective and musically dynamic; for three people they make an awful lot of racket. The group enables Kihlstedt to reach into the realms of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and classical with equal dexterity. It doesn’t always make for an easy listen — a few tracks may make you want to tear your hair out — but as with the best genre-bending, avant-garde work, the rewards are clearly worth it.