A Hawk and a Hacksaw
Darkness at Noon
om Waits could do worse than to tap the pseudo-psychedelic, sunburned garage orchestrations of Jeremy Barnes for his next record. A Hawk and a Hacksaw traffics in the same exuberant histrionics, and as with the The Black Rider, the slightly mawkish tall-tale-telescoping compositional lens is put to similarly whimsical ends. Barnes’ nods to ‘Wildness’, like Waits’, never quite get out of hand, drawing on the polite treatments that come with choosing an appropriately schooled cast of accomplished instrumentalists (who achieve texture through “extended technique” rather than “fucking around and making noise”) (Cf.. Tin Hat Trio, the Clogs, Kronos)—this is not always a good thing. However, Barnes also has the same gift as Waits for pulling off ethno-musicological reductionism in service of pleasingly confused musical narratives that somehow never feel quite as demeaning and misdirected as they might be in the talent of a lesser arranger.
Barnes—who in spite of his work with Bright Eyes, The Gerbils, and Broadcast, as well as several AHAAH releases, is still most often recalled as the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel—has assembled a cast of gestural characters as musically iconic as Tchaikovsky’s “Peter and the Wolf”: Grandpapa is the old gypsy fiddle; the Wolf is the tango accordion; the Hunter is the entire brass section, well-traveled and fluent in the languages of Cuban jazz and the death marches of New Orleans; Steve Reich is an influential New York minimalist composer who makes a cameo for the benefit of the investors; and the dusky, lean Laptop of decidedly ‘Glitch’ ethnicity sings it’s (cy)bird cries at the approach of the boundaries where the forests end and the post-modern ‘content’-grid begins. The wooly Tom Waits, however, is nowhere to be found. Nor any other main character lending purpose and tension and a why-are-we-here and who’s-in-my-bed and a murder-in-the-red-barn.
I first encountered the seeds of this music several years ago (prior to the first ‘Hacksaw’ release) at a Brooklyn loft party in the home of a local jazz record label-owner. There sat Barnes, on a bill with a free-jazz group featuring Daniel Carter and William Parker, and here beset before me a stripey-pantalooned one-man-band with a feather in his cap and a bass drum on his back. Being introduced by way of a visual cartoon did not assist me in overcoming a mostly unfair initial appraisal of the music based on its novelty overtones – the fine line separating a host of typecast character actors from a carnival gathering of the magically real, so separated it from me. But then I cannot say the jazz musicians were not also costumed and in character.
At the midnight end of the day "Darkness at Noon" is a nocturne collage consecrated to the twilight of regionalism. If you didn’t read that sentence twice, I am not doing my job. The ethnic and regional references season-salted throughout this record are worn as tight-fitting costumes. If the effect is one of theater and pageantry (and it is), the bands’ facility and compassion, from idiom through the most iconic instruments of the trade, keep the affair from being wholly an NPR parlor game misconstruction of ‘ethnic music’. The compositions are unremarkable but the joists and spackle eclipse the architecture…and here that’s not a bad thing at all. A Hawk and a Hacksaw, with this album, establishes a landscape of fairytale pastiches only to subvert and surprise down the road. What is remarkable is the way that they have made a recording that can remain entertaining and engaging, resist becoming background, even while leaving you with the nagging sense that it was about nothing but the act of musical reference itself. When was the last time you read a work of hyper-textual fiction and actually enjoyed it?
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-06-21