What is it about New Mexico and Balkan music? Both A Hawk And A Hacksaw and Beirut, who have coincidentally toured together, are each based in New Mexico, and both of them embody a unique brand of American Indie rock music that’s more reminiscent of traditional Russian and Jewish music. Other than Beirut’s greater emphasis on vocals, the main difference between the two groups is the relative musical experience; Beirut’s Zach Condon is fairly new to the music scene, while the predominant force behind A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Jeremy Barnes, has been in the musical circuit for quite a while. Barnes’s most prominent experience was drumming with Neutral Milk Hotel, where he was able to network with many of the musicians he now shares a place with in the Elephant 6 Recording Company.
Barnes’s musical abilities are at center stage throughout Délivrance, Hawk’s fifth album, in the form of some slick production and pleasant stylings. The album opens to the sound of spaghetti western rhythms and a quiet bouzouki before expanding its sound with strings and tuba. A melody finds its foothold, plays a few bars and lets the other instruments have their turn at riffing and improvisation. There may not be, in fact, a more exciting accordion solo for all of 2009 than on the record’s opener, “Foni Tu Argile”.
From here there’s not a lot of diversions as it’s basically business as usual for Barnes and company. “The Man Who Sold His Beard” flaunts violin-lead instigations with layered harmonies in thirds. “Raggle Taggle” recalls romantic-era classical violin before tearing down the facade with some stringent chromatic progressions. One of the more interesting songs, and titles, on the album is the neatly constructed “Vasalisa Carries a Flaming Skull Through the Forest” which sounds exactly as the title implies; a delicately violined-melody over a plodding tuba-led bass line which slowly keeps pace, neither speeding up nor slowing down, until the four minute song is over.
The music contained throughout the entire album is played with such grace and vigor, it’s hard to criticize all the work that was put forward. But disappointment is inevitable, especially for AHAAH devotees looking for something fresh. The repetition is staggering; at many points, listeners may be checking their iPods to be sure they haven’t turned on repeat, as many of the tracks box themselves into an accordion-shackled fury that seem difficult to break away from. While earlier efforts have found Hawk relying on more subtlety and traditional melodies, Délivrance feels careless and lacks that otherwise tight direction. Which is a bummer for those who know what this bunch of virtuosoes are capable of.