It’s easiest to compare Two Foot Yard to other groups with which violinist Carla Kihlstedt — the primary songwriter and singer for the trio — is involved. There’s the experimental-rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, which draws on the kitchen sink to create a thick and dark sound that’s in bed with hardcore and metal, with stage shows that incorporate performance art and all manner of pageantry. And there’s the Tin Hat Trio, now just Tin Hat since membership has grown, a chamber ensemble that draws on folk, classical and jazz to forge a unique sound that refreshes the repertoire of a traditional chamber music.
Two Foot Yard sounds the most like Tin Hat or any other classical ensemble that isn’t afraid to try out rock, jazz or folk sounds on stringed instruments. But the core of the band — and what makes Two Foot Yard different from purely instrumental new-music groups — is the vocals and songwriting of Kihlstedt. Not that her voice is anything unusual — she projects well, and can occasionally achieve an off-kilter breathiness that brings to mind Bjork. But her strong lyrics, as well as some Meredith Monk-style vocalizations, give the music a personality, which is only strengthened by contributions by cellist Marika Hughes and drummer and bassist Shahzad Ismaily.
To the show, a fairly well-attended Tuesday night performance at Radio Radio broke down into two sets, each a little under an hour. Ismaily generally took responsibility for introductions, which were funny and bizarre, and directed more attention towards the back of the stage than typical. The opening tune, “Hold Your Own,” was characteristic of much of Two Foot Yard’s sound: an almost frantic but still controlled continuous sixteenth-note line of the violin against Kihlstedt’s vocals; a slower bowed cello backing by Hughes grounded the Kihlstedt’s speedy violin; and Ismaily deploying wool mallets (or a wool substitute) in an understated fashion on his set.
Highlights: upbeat Greek folk music (with shades of American surf music’s appropriation, in the style of Miserlou), against a lyrics about an egotistical bastard. Hughes’s excellent cello work, featured in the tune “Octopus” in both pizzicato and bowed flavours. And just about any time that the three broke away from a coherent song structure (whether those free-form sections were written or not), because all three are can spin interesting and quite listenable solo lines, and I dig on any freak-out by a batch of talented musicians that can play dissonance in-tune.
The suite “Whistle Past the Graveyard,” a song-suite written by Hughes that featured the most cello of the evening, was a rather straight-forward somber ballad in parts, with baroque, lighter interludes that played against the dark subject matter of the lyrics. Young Johnny navigates a perverse world in the narrative of the tune, where there’s “not enough air in the whole damn place to feed him.” Resonant, thick chords and vocals made the song nearly heart-rending, and Ismaily accompanied the acoustic strings effectively on electric bass (he switched between the two throughout the set).