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A Hawk and a Hacksaw - A Hawk and a Hacksaw

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Artist: A Hawk and a Hacksaw

Album: A Hawk and a Hacksaw

Label: Cloud Recordings

Review date: Oct. 5, 2003

If the genre category is a safe way of applying a tradition or at least a sound or concept to an album, then A Hawk and a Hacksaw do all they can to confuse and surprise you. In categorical terms, the album seems to be straddling the borders between modern comp, some kind of Central European folk music, and familiar Elephant 6 acronyms like OTC and NMH. While brainchild Jeremy Barnes is no stranger to the quirky instrumentalism to be found on this self-titled debut album—having guested in such memorable moments in indie music history as Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and Bright Eyes’ Letting Off the Happiness — his solo effort sparkles with inventions his collaborative work couldn’t dream of, the eclectic musical turn blasting off in all directions at once and elaborating on a brilliant creative energy that was once subject to the creative whims of others.

Desperate, racing orchestrations, rollicking accordion tunes, delicate plucked strings, boisterous kazoos and whistles, all find a home in Barnes’ repertoire. The most interesting things are being done with the bass instruments: accordion, horns, nondescript blurping and bending distortions, while maintaining a sloppily droning piano activity above that reminds me of a Philip Glass movement played by a stubby-fingered drunk.

The album is missing something the whole way through, and it’s not till the peak last song that we’re able to look back over the mountainside and understand the path we took, that somehow in their mesmerizing movements the instruments never truly play as an ensemble.

Barnes does manage to find some beautiful moments in the progression from track to track, mostly from individual instruments or structural collage. The piano arpeggios cascade over and under the rest of the instruments in “Maremaillette,” and they darken into tense repetitions in “A Hawk and a Handsaw.” At times the structure of individual pieces is fragmented; “Romceasca” is the most eclectic journey of the first few tracks, showcasing a tap-your-foot accordion melody that alternates with slow, delicate sections in 4/4 with a waltz feel, matching xylophone, accordion, plucked guitar, piano, and a chorus of kazoos. Barnes turns a motley orchestra of rags into a beautiful mess that builds for almost four minutes, and immediately we’re thrown into the chase music from a Charlie Chaplin scene, as piano and accordion duel in fleet sixteenth notes (the vaudeville-esque “A Hard Row to Hoe”). There’s a real tension between cleanliness and clutter, with the lively accordion/piano numbers outlining the beautiful shapes alluded to in the more scattered, cluttered tracks like “To Pine in Time” and “Romeasca”. “Black Firs” creates pauses in tranquility with brighter piano phrases, then destroys, reassembles, destroys with electronic cuts, segueing directly into the raucous accordion stomp of “Cotton Woods,” where vocals crowd the mix for the first time on the album, though it’s jubilant shouts that enter in rather than actual sung lyrics. Other tracks seem just fillers, breaking off from a sound pattern or mode into a quick caper before hitting a blank wall.

And then we peak. Rising out the sea like a sleek killer whale, “A Hawk and a Hacksaw” is the album’s climax: sleepy vocals dare to join the fray, and we get “It’s not your feelings, guy, it’s not your feelings” a strange but unquestionably lovely break from the silence. Then the orchestra expands, levitates, and breaks out in a grand wash of bright, sweet tones. The nervous distraction gives way to a persistent focus, the disparate arrangements to a bleeding beauty. “With Our Thoughts We Make the World” is a graceful bow, a flourish, but the album is already completed, and the curtain is descending.

By Joel Calahan

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