The Balkan States of America | Bleader

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Balkan States of America

Posted By on 10.11.06 at 12:48 PM

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Tomorrow night, Thursday, October 12, two bands that borrow their sounds from Eastern European Gypsy music play at the Empty Bottle. Beirut is the much-ballyhooed project of 20-year old Zach Condon, a New Mexico native who moved to New York this year, and it's received plenty of ink for its debut, Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing!). Like many people -- myself included -- Condon caught the fever for Gypsy brass-band music through the films of Emir Kusturica, and a visit to Europe allowed him to take in those sounds first hand. He then multitracked trumpet, accordion, piano, ukulele, mandolin, percussion, and organ, and a handful of compatriots further fleshed out the arrangements. But while the instrumentation clearly seeks to evoke the raucous, passionate energy of Balkan music, the songs themselves are rooted in American pop forms. Condon has admitted that he doesn’t intend to devote himself to these stylistic choices -- it's kind of a phase he's going through -- but he does a nice job of personalizing Gypsy sounds.

More steeped in Gypsy music is A Hawk and a Hacksaw, the current project of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes (who’s also a part of Bablicon with Chicagoans Griff Rodriguez and Dave McDonnell) and fiddler Heather Trost. (The two also play on the Beirut album.) Their new recording, The Way the Wind Blows (Leaf), contains original tunes written as jaunty waltzes and horos, and while they don’t match the rhythmic complexity of real Balkan music, it’s a pretty impressive simulacrum. Barnes spent two weeks in the tiny Moldavian village of Zece Prajini, the home of the excellent Romanian brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia, and their wild, pumping horn lines grace a number of the tracks here. But even when the tunes are limited mostly to his accordion and Troste’s accomplished violin playing, they’re convincing. As you can see in this live video , Barnes uses his legs to play jerry-rigged percussion, which might be a little silly if he didn’t do such a find job at changing up accents and making sharp displacements. The vocals are a weak spot--the ineffectual crooning style is clearly a remnant of Barnes's indie-rock beginnings--but singing is never at the center of the tunes, so it’s fairly easy to ignore.

Barnes and Trost will play in Beirut at the show; I'd expect that some of Beirut’s other players would return the favor during A Hawk and a Hacksaw's set.

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