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A Hawk and a Hacksaw - Délivrance

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Artist: A Hawk and a Hacksaw

Album: Délivrance

Label: Leaf

Review date: Jun. 29, 2009

It seems to be a common matter of discourse of late, but the discussion of authenticity in ethnic music is hardly a new one. The to-dos instigated by groups like Vampire Weekend and Beirut are only some of the most recent shots in a battle that formerly focused on Graceland and Peter Gabriel. Jeremy Barnes, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s founder (and at one time the concern’s sole member) has stated that he has little concern for authenticity in music, hoping instead to deliver something personal, a sound that integrates both his love for Balkan and Eastern-European music and his upbringing within the tradition of American songwriting.

Still, for authenticity’s sake or not, Barnes has gone to impressive lengths in order to immerse himself in the cultural environs of the music he loves. Barnes cut his teeth playing with a wide array of international musicians in a number of American and European locales, and recorded the band’s last full-length, The Way the Wind Blows, in a Romanian village for the sake of the surrounding atmosphere. Of late, Barnes and Heather Trost (his partner, and the band’s other core member) have lived in Budapest, and have taken in the local Hun Hangar Ensemble as members of the group. In 2007, he released an EP with the ensemble, but Délivrance marks A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s first full-length with Hun Hangar in tow.

Maybe due to the new bandmates, or the new home, Délivrance is A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s least idiosyncratic release yet. The charm of Barnes’ former performances as a one-man band were a necessary loss (and, for Barnes, probably a relief) as A Hawk and a Hacksaw grew in size. The unpredictable field recordings and zaniness of his earlier work has been quieted in deference to a more streamlined approach. Délivrance not only features some of the most straightforward work in the troupe’s catalog, but also includes arrangements of traditional tunes from a variety of backgrounds. The amalgam of ethnicities in terms of musical style and players is handled deftly, and while there’s some dissonance in the album’s virtual dance across the continent, it’s nothing terribly disrupting.

Barnes, Trost, and stringman Chris Hladowski don’t sound out of place at all with the gifted home team of Hungarian musicians. For all the cimbalom wizardry of Balázs Unger and Kálmán Balogh (his variation on the dulcimer is the instrument that most often steals the show), Hladowski hangs tough with some great string work of his own. Barnes’ accordion is a consistent voice in the music, but rarely pushes its way to center stage. Aside from the two tracks that feature his vocals, there’s little musical evidence of Barnes’ leadership of the group, which likely suits him just fine. The celebratory sway of "Foni tu argile" and breakneck Balkan speed of "Hummingbirds" are indicative of the energy level of much of the disc, which offers little in the way of breathing room during its 37 minutes. "Raggle Taggle" begins with a mournful, distorted violin (supplanted towards the end, of course, by a vibrant romp) and "Vasalisa Carries a Flaming Skull Through the Forest" adds some space between the instruments for a quirky, downtempo track.

For all the technical skill shown in Délivrance‘s high-speed numbers, closer "Lassu" is probably the disc’s most evocative. An adaptation of a traditional tune, "Lassu" sounds well… Western, with a simple, wistful melody that’s striking in its unadorned delivery. As Trost’s double-tracked violin floats above the uncharacteristically restrained accompaniment, Délivrance drifts away quietly, with far less fanfare than it began.

Even if Barnes & Co. don’t have any manner of authenticity or stylistic fidelity in mind, theirs is an approach imbued with a desire to do things the right way, and in that sense, they’ve made an album that engages with ethnic styles rather than appropriating them. A Hawk and a Hacksaw aren’t out to become a play-acting troupe of faux folk revivalists, and their music is all the better for it. Délivrance sits comfortably between the acknowledgement of musical customs and a willingness to break the rules.

By Adam Strohm

Other Reviews of A Hawk and a Hacksaw

A Hawk and a Hacksaw

Darkness at Noon

The Way the Wind Blows

You Have Already Gone to the Other World

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