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July 1, 2009
Much has been made over the years of the role of geography in music. Satchmo and Al Hirt had the rhythms of French quadrilles and the spice of Cajun life woven so taught into their sounds as to be indistinguishable from New Orleans itself. The rigidity and precision of the German stereotype reverberated through the cold synthetic tones of Kraftwerk in a manner that only a city called Düsseldorf could foster. Few albums sound more palpably Californian than The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. When "Beds Are Burning" hit MTV, you could tell just by looking at them that Midnight Oil were from Down Under.

Geographical origins, through a litany of variables like culture, weather, and even the natural landscape (think Sigur Rós), can have an often underconsidered impact on the sounds musicians record. It's why the simple act of relocating from one place to another can change much more than the scenery. Consider For Emma, Forever Ago, a remarkable album that likely would have been remarkably different had Justin Vernon stayed in North Carolina rather than holing up in a Wisconsin cabin.

But what to make of musicians who represent multiple places, and distant (in every sense of the word) ones at that, all at once? The duo-cum-band A Hawk And A Hacksaw are testament to the fact that, for all of our world's shrinking and flattening in the digital age, place still matters, and that home is where the heart is. Originating in Jeremy Barnes' native Albuquerque, A Hawk And A Hacksaw is the antithesis of today's shifting cultural and musical realities. Whereas The Postal Service constructs an album that feels about as welcoming as a shopping mall parking lot by mailing digital demo tracks back and forth from one player to another, Barnes and longtime partner Heather Trost pack up their bags and journey from the high desert of New Mexico to the banks of the Danube. That physical connection to place, and all a place entails, surely plays a leading role in the celebratory journey of their music's sound.

Over the course of several albums A Hawk And A Hacksaw has followed a slowly curving road of regional distinctions. Early on, as Barnes' solo project, there was a much more traditional American folk bent to the recordings, and then came a distinctive turn, with Darkness At Noon, toward the bizarrely organic convergence of Balkan and Border music. Not many bands have the artistic appreciations to shape a stylistic place where the horns and accordions of klezmer and mariachi traditions can bleed into one another without sounding kitschy, but Barnes and Trost have managed to carve out exactly that.

Maybe its the fact that the two Beirut albums from Zachary Condon (who also happens to hail from New Mexico) have been so lauded, but the Balkans seem to be the new Berlin when it comes to stylistic allegiances amongst the indie set. Brooklyn art punks excluded, of course. Barnes and Trost can stake claim to being there first however, and certainly get bonus points for going the extra 5825 miles. Now based in Budapest, the pair have fleshed out their once rickety, lo-fi frame, and made an even stronger pendulum swing toward the sensibilities of Eastern European music.

[Photos by Tina Larkin (top), Adam Faraday and Jeanne Madic (bottom)]


There is of course still a heavy inflection of Barnes' accordion and Trost's violin on their new album, released earlier this summer by The Leaf Label, but the addition of players from the Hun Hangár Ensemble, with whom the AHAAH duo recorded a doubly-eponymous and highly praised 2007 collaboration, gives Délivrance a stronger sound than 2006's The Way The Wind Blows (which was recorded with local players in a Romanian village). I say stronger because richer would be a bit of a misnomer. For the most part, Délivrance is as much overloaded as it is finely detailed. Overloaded in a good way, that verges on being completely blown out. If you ever wanted to know what a Tijuana wedding band would sound like in a pan-European mashup blared from a cheap boombox propped up in the street-level window of a Hungarian wine cellar, Délivrance is probably your best bet at realizing it.

The album opens with "Foni Tu Argile," an escalating number that sets the stage for 37 minutes of blaring horns, taunting strings and complex Ottoman rhythms. From there Délivrance seems to get progressively louder and more frantic as the songs unfold. Three songs in, on "The Man Who Sold His Beard," one almost expects to hear the snapping of plank floorboards under the weight of a stomping and strutting Magyar wedding party. In general, largely because of the simultaneous and often divergent (but never really divisive) individual players, the songs have an intentionally dusty, particulated fidelity, and that production lends itself well to both the style of playing and the romantic, Old World feel of the songs. At its heart Délivrance is more about party than production. "Hummingbirds" appropriately flits about in a sort of controlled chaotic jam.

There is a bit of somber reprieve from all the revelry in "Raggle Taggle," where Trost's violin steps up for a weepy and plaintive but beautiful solo, as Barnes' accordion finally takes a breather, wheezing in the background for a spell. Bit being the operative word in that last sentence--at the three minute mark Trost perks up, Barnes springs back to life, and the track neatly falls into a relatively light and sharp tempo that at once manages to sound like the both the hills of Appalachia and the shores of Lake Balaton.

After that, "I Am Not A Gambling Man" helps explain why A Hawk And A Hacksaw are primarily an instrumental group. It isn't that Barnes is lacking as a singer--his voice has a warmth and weight that pairs well with the music, and "Gambling Man" is a solid track, perhaps the most memorable on the album precisely for Barnes' vocals. It is that every person I know who has heard it, down to the man, has taken it for a Decemberists song. Crooning about there being no hunting season, over the bubbly stride of his accordion pumps, Barnes sounds uncannily like Colin Meloy.



There has and will be much made of Délivrance's worldly ties, especially to the Hungarian city in which it was recorded, but it would be a disservice to consider the work without singing the praises of an astonishingly diverse range of influences and reflections. Granted, there are no Asian gongs or Hindustani sitars or Norwegian metal riffs, but A Hawk And A Hacksaw generally play a style that would be more appropriately tagged United Nations than simply Balkan. "Kertész" has a hint of sea shanty in it and would soundtrack well with Leonardo Di Costanzo and Bruno Oliviero's film Odessa. When "Raggle Taggle" picks up there comes to mind not only a Jewish wedding in Ukraine but also a fiddle-led Kentucky hootenanny. "Turkiye," as the name partially implies, is influenced as much by the Sonoran Desert, the Greek isles and the Anatolian peninsula as it is by the former Eastern Bloc (the term "Balkan," I've learned, actually originates from the Turkish term for a formation of forested mountains). Most interestingly, the closing "Lassú," regrettably the shortest track of the collection, warbles with a poignant distortion that modestly calls to mind Barnes' former band, Neutral Milk Hotel.

If all that ethnic jibber-jabber sounds a little too much like some hokey audio patchouli you might imagine wafting out of some Beatnik coffee stop called One World Cafe, don't take of running in the other direction without tasting a sample. For a cross-section of the album's sensibilities, albeit rendered at the record's most calm and collected setting, check out "Vasilis Carries A Flaming Skull Through The Forest," which has not only the best name but also some of the most interestingly blended styles. Plucked strings give the cut an ominous undercurrent with their foreboding timbre, and the clarinet at the song's center underscores the creeping seriousness. It is a song that could loll inconspicuously down the streets of Budapest or blow on the dusty wind through Chihuahua as easily as it could find a home in Tel Aviv or Vilnius. You won't find anything on Délivrance as poignant (or as quiet), but in keeping with the album's weirdly natural contradictions this singular track is also a good ambassador for the record and the band as a whole.

VIDEO: "Am Not A Gambling Man"
VIDEO: "The Man Who Sold His Beard"

SEE ALSO: www.ahawkandahacksaw.co.uk
SEE ALSO: www.theleaflabel.com

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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