[27 May 2009]
When my grandmother, who was born in a small village in rural Hungary, heard Délivrance, the new album from A Hawk and a Hacksaw, she had a visceral reaction—she sat up (not much hope for her jumping nimbly these days) and did what amounted to a traditional Hungarian dance. So maybe it’s in my blood, but I have this strange sense of alignment with Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, the musicians behind new-folk group A Hawk and a Hacksaw. It extends past their Eastern European-centred folk music, too. One of their songs imagines Vasilisa, a heroine of Slavic folklore and the central figure in a series of children’s books I once devoured. Another takes its name from a now out-of-print book by Walter Starkie, a classic travel narrative in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes”, which found its way into my father’s collection of second-hand travel guides and used to sit, teasing with promises of gypsy tales, too high for me to reach.
It’s hardly these small personal coincidences that have made A Hawk and a Hacksaw a sturdy presence for many listeners over the past five years or so. Jeremy Barnes (vocals, accordion, drums) and partner Heather Trost (violin) have parlayed the cultural exchange behind last year’s EP (A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangar Ensemble) into a robust sort of indie goodwill—they have so often been mentioned in the same breath as Neutral Milk Hotel that they have gained a kind of respect-by-proxy. The group does have ‘fans’, rather than just ‘listeners’, and its concerts have a warm, inclusive joyful quality to them, from what I can gather. The truth is, though, A Hawk and a Hacksaw are a folk group and, despite the overtures that have been made to them by the indie rock community, they should be considered along more traditional folk ensembles like, say, Zoltan and his Gypsy Ensemble. Let’s not forget, Kalman Balogh’s virtuosic cimbalom playing is all over Délivrance.
If A Hawk and a Hacksaw share something with indie pop’s other great cultural tourists—that’d be Beirut—it’s that they are conscious of their outsider status. This manifests as an almost defensive effusiveness. The group’s songs are bursting with the kind of kaleidoscopic, humanist celebration that you see in, yeah, tourist videos for Hungary from the ‘80s. Barnes’ ethnomusicological glee at discovering these sounds, timbres and melodies is barely censored—and you know what? It works, almost all the time. Sure, the group never sounds like a coherent in-genre folk group but more like an impressionistic pastiche of regional sounds. But the spirit of this endeavour gives it its charm.
That’s not to say A Hawk and a Hacksaw are in any substantial way comparable to Beirut—the latter group’s too close to pop musical tropes and ideas, and Zach Condon himself has too much musical curiosity to stick within the genre of folk music, let alone folk’s Eastern European/Middle Eastern axis. Barnes and Trost, on the other hand, find plenty to keep them busy, four albums in. By this point in the group’s career, Délivrance is no great surprise. The onomatopoeic “Hummingbirds”, for example, flits on scratchy violin wings as the accordion and cimbalom provide jittery perpetual motion below. The Slavic tonalities of the piece are reminiscent of Smetana’s famous “Die Moldau”, and in general the music A Hawk and a Hacksaw makes shares a similar programmatic quality. Of course, it’s only chamber music, really, and can’t hope to match the majesty of the most powerful moments of full orchestral romanticism.
The best material on Délivrance combines those traditional tonalities (and an occasional borrowed melody) with a modernist’s easy whim for change. “The Man Who Sold His Beard” quickly hops from the group’s familiar jiggery to something more solitary; “Raggle Taggle” travels the opposite direction, from hooded, emotive violin ballad to Yiddish dance. “Vasalisa Carries a Flaming Skull through the Forest”, riding over steady bass clarinet with some strange blown instrument, becomes a slow-dragged waltz that’s completely unexpected, but lifts the whole song up. The couple of instances where Barnes sings, though, are less successful. His voice, which is reedy in the indie way, seems out of place singing non-sequiturs with this rich, evocative instrumentation behind it.
Still, as A Hawk and a Hacksaw go along, there’s no great sense they’re missing an opportunity. As Délivrance and indeed much of their other work demonstrates, these musicians are delightful when they’re pursuing their wide-ranging musical interests without heed of time or place. This new album doesn’t necessarily sound like it is from 2009 (except, maybe, for the overlapping-tracking of the unexpectedly elegaic farewell “Lassu”). If it captures something old childhood memories, though, it may just be timeless.