Albuquerque-based duo A Hawk And A Hacksaw (also referred to as AHAAH), featuring former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost, has carved out an impressive progression of Eastern European folk-influenced recordings. For Barnes, it seems that he, as opposed to his other Elephant 6 collective brethren, sought out a reverse musical direction to the expansive, exploratory pop the collective had spearheaded (including Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, Apples in Stereo and Essex Green, among others). Instead, he followed its very early musical roots, a path that led him to New Mexico, then to Hungary (and subsequently throughout Europe) and back to New Mexico.
In their journey, Barnes and Trost began to form their own collective of Balkan and other like-minded folk musicians, both in greater Europe and in their home base, Albuquerque. On Cervantine, their first self-released recording and their sixth overall full-length, they follow a similar road traveled on their previous record, Délivrance, adding Greek, Middle Eastern and Mexican mariachi influences to the mix.
In addition to members of the touring band, including brass players Samuel Johnson and Mark Weaver, UK instrumentalist Chris Hladowski once again joins AHAAH (on bouzouki), adding his sister Stephanie on vocals. The Bradford, England, siblings also comprise the group The Family Elan and are part of the improvisational collective Scatter, which also features the notable percussionist/drummer Alex Neilson (who toured with Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy, among others). Oddly, Stephanie Hladowski provides the only vocals on Cervantine. Her delivery on two songs, "Mana Thelo Enan Andra" and the Turkish classic "Uskudar," hit the mark with authenticity, providing sparks on the album that are unfortunately few and far between.
Recorded in Albuquerque during a gap in tours, Cervantine lacks the inspired play, eccentricity and overall joie de vivre prevalent throughout the band's earlier releases, most evident on their superb 2007 recording with the Bulgarian troupe The Hun Hangár Ensemble. I even miss Jeremy Barnes' untrained vocals, which are absent from the new album. Even though there are occasional instances when lively performances arise, as on "Espanola Kolo" and "At the Vulture Negru," and the execution is highly competent, AHAAH delivers a fairly disciplined, serious and somber offering.
It is interesting to note that Barnes and Trost have recruited a number of ace contemporary musicians who are known for their improvisational skills, yet Cervantine is the most hemmed-in recording they've produced. In the band's pursuit of a type of classicism (as opposed to playing up the pop-kitsch aspect of the music, like Gogol Bordello or DeVotchKa), it may have lost some of its edge. And it may be a significant mark for AHAAH to reflect whether or not it is an admirable servant to the folk tradition it pays respect to, or an inventive interpreter.