The genteel ambassadors of Balkan brass would like to present their greatest hits.
Maybe you have to see them live. In Chicago back in 2008, the headlong rush was incredible -- virtuosic but off-kilter, like flying along in one of those Indiana Jones mine cars only perfectly, surrounded by control and chaos all at once. Whatever musical devices they used to get that effect -- percussion perched on top of the beat? horns going slightly sharp? certainly the solos were more unhinged -- the rush comes across only occasionally on Golden Horns, a compilation from the Boban i Marko Marković Orkestar, Serbia’s premier brass band led by father Boban (flugelhorn) i son Marko (trumpet).
This is frustrating, if not unexpected. After all, "you gotta see ‘em live" is one of the biggest clichés of the recorded music era. (Maybe people said the same thing about unsatisfying sheet music -- "This Mozart aria reads OK, but you gotta hear it live, man.") Album opener "Khelipe e Cheasa" promises adventure, excitement, thrills, chills and sljivovica: somebody wolf-whistles, tenor horns blat and men shout "Hep!" on the offbeats, saxman Erol Demirov calls ducks, and the horn tuttis are surrounded by little warbling countermelodies. A party! But for all its promises, "Khelipe e Cheasa" doesn’t thrill. It’s a very pleasant song; the band switches from hook to ingratiating hook with professional ease, and their chops should make us proud to be human beings. The song closes with an aggressive shimmering cacophony, some horns trilling away while others interject melodic lines, and it’s all very impressive, but it’s hard not to feel like something’s missing.
Much brass band music, whether Balkan or banda, straightlaced Sousa or downtown New York, walks a particular sort of high-tension wire. The prevailing texture of this stuff is homogeneous. It’s got counterpoint -- a few horns work the melody, some other horns work the harmony, and maybe someone else throws in a countermelody -- but everyone’s working together towards a unified musical effect. What keeps things interesting is the threat of heterogeneity. The more musicians you get together, the greater the probability that something will go wrong intentionally or otherwise. The parts will diverge and someone’ll start playing an unexpected counterpoint that doesn’t quite fit, even as it ratchets up the excitement. This is simple math, the arithmetic of obnoxia.
On record at least, the Orkestar isn’t obnoxious enough. In the formulation of writer David Wondrich, they’ve got a lot of drive but not enough swerve. (Wondrich: “Whenever there’s a proper, legit, ‘dicty’ way of phrasing the tune in question and a musician plays something arbitrary, irrational, spontaneous, unexplainable, that’s the swerve.”) Partly this is a matter of expectations. You listen to most brass band music, including Balkan brass, with the expectation of craziness. Fanfare Ciocărlia plays chewy staccatos that threaten to become pure rhythm. Yolanda Pérez’s banda goes so fast and sharp you fear it’ll topple over. Something’s bound to go wrong. Indeed, the Orkestar plays up these expectations, rapping a song called "Sljivovica", shouting "Hep!" and "Hey!", subtitling the 2007 album that contributed several of these tunes Brass Madness. Not Brass Skill or Virtuoso Brass or Brass Who’ve Worked Really Hard to Cross Over. No, these guys claim to be mad crazy; they just don’t sound like it here. Their largely instrumental songs are about parties, but they don’t bring the party itself. They’ve premeditated every "Hep!" and "Hey!"
That’s not to say I couldn’t listen to them for a while. Golden Horns compiles some fine moments, from the ‘70s car-chase tribute "Dzumbus Funk" to the burnished spaghetti Western vibe of "Obećanje". Besides their trademark polkas, the Markovićs and their drumline touch on all sorts of rhythms: funk, reggaeton, ska, swing, you name it, and that’s not counting the two limp dance remixes tacked onto the end. They throw in winking touchstones like Mozart’s 40th Symphony (you know: "dunaNA dunaNA dunaNAHNA! dunaNA dunaNA dunaNA!") and, in the album’s most thrilling moment, a live version of "Hava Naguila" whose swerve comes from its playful tempo changes. Their tunes are catchy and their burbling arrangements always carry plenty of momentum. Balkan brass could do worse than these genteel ambassadors.
The Orkestar sort of reminds me of two rock groups I love: Sonic Youth and Lightning Bolt. They’ve fashioned unique styles for themselves, you could imagine them working minor variations on those styles until the world ends, and they all nod to a transgressive craziness that, at this point, you know they’ll never actually deliver. For all their noise, Lightning Bolt basically play groovy dadrock, and all the Markovićs’ party promises amount to enjoyable family music for public lawns. Go see ‘em live. The adults drink, the kids dance, sometimes vice versa, and everyone has a fine time before driving home in their SUVs. The group’s virtuosity is never in doubt. If it was, they might sound more exciting, but they'd have trouble getting gigs and you’d be way less likely to hear them.