A Hawk and a Hacksaw
The Way the Wind Blows
woozy saxophone welcomes us to A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s third album, The Way the Wind Blows. Drunk in the mid-afternoon Marrakech sun, it segues into snake charming soundtrack territory before embarking on a balmy Balkan evening river ride wherein Jeremy Barnes (A Hawk and a Hacksaw himself) states that “Swimming is not so dangerous / If you only give it a try” atop Mariachi trumpets and a militaristic march.
Partly recorded in a remote Romanian village with members of the Balkan folk group, Fanfare Ciocarlia, The Way the Wind Blows is as nomadic as its creator. Barnes grew up in New Mexico, moved to Chicago for school, and dropped out to drum in Neutral Milk Hotel. Following their demise, he lent his handiwork to Bablicon, Bright Eyes, and Broadcast, before settling in Leicester, England to become a postman (he liked the uniform) and volunteer at a refugee hostel, playing music with asylum seekers from Iraq, Kurdistan, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria. This eclectic exposure influenced AHAAH’s self-titled debut album, which was recorded in France and featured loose piano-based songs augmented by a barnyard-full of instruments (including, yes, a rooster’s call). From England, Barnes moved to Prague, writing second album Darkness at Noon, before returning to New Mexico. It was here that he met violinist, Heather Trost, who became a permanent second member of the group, adding an extra dimension to what was essentially a one-man-band.
In April of 2006, Barnes got the urge to go again. Life savings in hand, he embarked on a mythic quest of ‘golden fleece’-like proportions to track down renowned gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia. With nothing more than a phone number to go on, Barnes found them in the tiny Moldovan village of Zece Prajini and set up a makeshift studio in the front room of a house where he and the band bonded and recorded.
The result is a rousing record, meshing gypsy instrumentation (accordion, violin), a brash brass band, carnival caravan percussion, and Barnes’ chant like vocals. It has an obvious sense of authenticity that previous AHAAH albums lacked (in essence, but not necessarily in sound), and veers from instrumentals so layered they feel lyrical, to vocal songs whose lines range from weighty (“Your men won’t protect you from destiny”) to whimsical (“Don’t be afraid / The moon is your home.”) Musically, The Way the Wind Blows bursts and builds in equal measure; “Fernando’s Giampari” trumpets its arrival with, well, trumpets, while, “God Bless the Ottoman Empire” floats from muted flamenco guitar into Middle Eastern market music before settling on a Gregorian chant over what sounds like a child ice-skating inside a piano. Only on album opener “In the River” does Barnes come close to sounding conventional; it’s Calexico cavorting across Europe, skipping styles like a stone skimming water, dropping in and out before finally sinking inside a saxophone. And though the album sags a little towards the end, with a few shorter instrumental numbers, it’s still an invigorating journey, a caravan of cavorting musicians, careening through the countryside, stopping only to play festivals and funerals.
This review without wouldn’t be complete without mentioning today’s two better known Balkan burglars: Beirut, whose Zach Condon played on The Way the Wind Blows (AHAAH also moonlight as members of his backing band), and Gogol Bordello. But whereas these two more commercially acclaimed bands attach Balkan influence to their existing song structures, folk (Beirut) and punk (Gogol Bordello), AHAAH negates song structures in the formal sense, and is, rather than Western music accented by Eastern European influences, purely Balkan; not in name, not in nationality, but in sound and spirit.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2006-10-11