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A Hawk and a Hacksaw - Darkness at Noon

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Artist: A Hawk and a Hacksaw

Album: Darkness at Noon

Label: Leaf

Review date: Mar. 25, 2005

As A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Jeremy Barnes performs a marvelous balancing act. Live, Barnes is a one-man band, playing piano and accordion, singing and beating time with percussion strapped to his remaining parts. Barnes confesses he has trouble keeping this act from falling to pieces, and his second album, Darkness at Noon, expresses the thrilling sensation as being on a train car about to jump the tracks. On the album, Barnes gets help from collaborators, allowing him to widen his orchestral colors to include violin, lute, trumpet, tuba and more.

The album closes with a cover of the folksinger Derroll Adams' "Portland Town.” It is a tale of a person's life from beginning to end, with all the triumph and tragedy that comes between. This broad sweep of feeling in a simple package is what Barnes aims for – and hits.

Barnes keeps the album from falling apart in two different ways. He mines minor Eastern European scales for all his melodic material, whether it’s for the mourning call of a violin on "The Water Under the Moon," the swaying, ghostly chant on "For Slavoj," or the insistent blare of brass instruments on "The Moon Under the Water." The choice also helps Barnes maintain the album's emotional tension throughout, as the Eastern European modalities waver tantalizingly between heartbreak and celebration.

Repetition is Barnes' second glue. When the melody is as beautiful as on "The Water Under the Moon" there's no need to embellish it. On "A Black and White Rainbow," Barnes states an ominous accordion phrase over and over, and driven by the strut of flamenco-tinged percussion, it becomes exudes more dread with each repetition. The brass on "The Moon Under the Water" beats out a frenzied line that stokes the piece closer and closer to ecstasy.

The tape collage "Goodbye Great Britain" disturbs the pacing of the album. Barnes's tape effects work better when they adorn his songs, like the bits of dialogue at the opening of "Laughter in the Dark" or the creaking of a horse carriage on "The Moon Under the Water." Barnes also likes to use field recordings, and the bird-call trill bubbling underneath Barnes singing, accompanied only by a piano, gives "Our Lady of the Vltava" a fitting delicacy.

The transition between that tune's spare desperation and the manic rhythm and whiplash melody of "Wicky Pocky" provide the album's defining moment, as Darkness at Noon thrives on pushing and pulling the listener from emotional peak to valley. Such extremes, tempered by Barnes's direct approach to composing, make the album an exhausting – and rewarding – listen.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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