[8 April 2009]
In 2004 the Warsaw Village Band won Best Newcomer at the BBC’s Radio 3 Awards for World Music. After that I began to hear of the musicians here and there. They were mentioned in an article, in a review of a live show, the band’s name was on the backs of compilations that I didn’t buy, and so on. In spite of that I didn’t pay them a lot of attention. This is the first time I’ve listened to one of their albums.
Infinity starts so quickly that I thought they wouldn’t be able to keep it up. It’s a pugilist of a disc, plunging directly at the listener with a swarm of fiddles and cellos, rushing and twisting, mad as salmon. They’re hooking us in with the strongest stuff, I thought. It’ll flatten out later on.
It doesn’t though. ‘Powerful’ is the Band’s default setting. They don’t sound as if they’re plunging and twisting just because they think it will get your attention, there’s no whiff of calculation or Barnumry. They’re doing it because that’s what they do. Fish swim, birds fly, the Warsaw Village Band sounds like a folk ‘n’ chamber orchestra-salmon charging up a set of rapids, and all of nature is as it should be.
They use the chamber-classical cello not to soothe but to unnerve. When the violin comes in over the top of the cello at the start of “1, 5 H”, it sounds as if it’s trying to calm the other set of strings down, but with an unstated, smarmy motive—it’s a lying violin. The singing voice, when it arrives, is not perfect. I have the feeling that it’s not supposed to be, that the slight careless roughness it has, as if the owner has stamped home husky after a punishing day, is intentional. The voices—by the end of the album there are several—sing in a shrill Polish country style that reminds me of the Voices Bulgare.
The Warsaw Village Band has faced up to a problem that affects all urban musicians when they decide to work with country music, of any kind, namely, how do you do this and not sound fake? They handle it by approaching the music with an intensity that lets you know they’re serious. They’re not striving for a mimicry of old-time authenticity, they’re taking an existing body of music and pushing it forward. They seize the country sounds and remould them, they possess them, they don’t throw away their urban training and try to simplify themselves down to a false hickishness. Instead they take pleasure in the complications that training can bring. It’s clear that these are self-aware citizens of the world, willing to bring outside ideas into their traditional music. Their version of Polish folk is a mixture of roots, classical, and other things entirely.
So how do they complicate it? Listen to “Over the Forest”. There’s a deep heave-ho in here, something that might be the sketch of an African-American spiritual. Is that what it is? In the next song the heave-ho takes on a more important role and the listener’s questions are answered. Yes, it was definitely a nod to the Americans. In the song after that the idea of African-American music spreads and develops. By the time they reach “Heartbeat” the band is integrating a gospel hum into their singing. While all of this was going on they’ve also introduced a tiny bit of scratching in one song then brought it into the foreground of the next. This is what they do: they introduce a theme in one song, just enough to let you know it’s there, then expand it. While all of this is going on they might be setting up something else. Several thematic balls are in the air at the same time, first one coming into prominence, then another.
In this way Infinity acquires a complex coherence. Now I see why they won an award, now I see the reason for the enthusiasm I read about afterwards. The musicians are not only musically accomplished, they’re also intelligent, and in a way that doesn’t let their brains get in the way of their music. It’s an exciting album, a non-guilty pleasure. That’s the simplest way of putting it—exciting.