It’s always been hard to tell exactly where A Hawk and a Hacksaw are coming from. Literally speaking, of course, the core duo of Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost hails from Albuquerque, NM. And musically speaking, it’s not hard to infer ties between the group’s plaintive, folkish eccentricity and Barnes’s old job as the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel. A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s first major album, Darkness at Noon, was thus fairly comprehensible. Upon its release in 2005, it was received as a blast of noisy, plaintive indie song with strong Eastern European leanings, not unlike the music of Beirut.
These Elephant Six characters seemed to be obsessed with authenticity, however, and recreating a style simply wasn’t enough. So Barnes and Trost went to Romania and recorded with the Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia. In 2006, the same year of The Way the Wind Blows, the duo moved to Budapest, Hungary. There, they recorded their fourth album, Délivrance, and toured the UK with the Hungarian folk group The Hun Hangár Ensemble. Cervantine is being released on A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s newly-founded record label, L.M. Dupli-cation.
Their ambitions are admirable, and the diversity of their music is wonderful. To be sure, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s albums, like their travels, are a mélange of places, artists and traditions. But on Cervantine, for the first time, the band’s ever-expanding stable of influences feels a bit crowded. Darkness at Noon stood out for its austere, peculiar and yet universal beauty. It was precisely the unidentifiable simplicity of the music that made it so affecting. In contrast, this new effort feels like some kind of over-extension. It’s filled with long, often frenetic instrumental pieces that are marvelous in their energy and tone, but often lapse into meaningless repetition, empty frenzy and inflated grandeur.
This set of songs isn’t as strong as their previous work, but on rare occasions, even the instrumentalists disappoint. On “At the Vulturul Negru”, for example, the leading accordion slips in and out of time. Of course, with the drums pulsing and shimmying in the background and the bass thudding dully below, it’s hard to tell exactly where the melody loses its foothold. But that’s precisely the problem: Cervantine is less convincing than early A Hawk and a Hacksaw albums because there’s just too much going on.
Cervantine is said to reflect the way that Spanish and Mexican musics have made an impact in the Eastern European folk tradition—the title is something of a follow-through on the band’s name, which is actually a Don Quixote allusion. Considering all the ground they’ve already covered, one can’t help but wonder if Barnes and Trost have lost their bearings somewhat. Like Délivrance before it, Cervantine feels more exotic and less immediate than its predecessors. There are still moments of the kind of lush astonishment and discovery that characterize any foreign encounter, but they’re fewer and farther between. The far-flung affinities of their instruments, melodies and rhythms used to be A Hawk and a Handsaw’s chief draw for listeners of every stripe. As the band becomes more and more involved in the international folk community, some of that allure is beginning to get lost in translation.