A Hawk And A Hacksaw have no business messing about in the modern popular music landscape. Unlike their closest comparison, Zach Condon’s Beirut, Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost make no attempt to update their Balkan folk-inspired sound, or to repackage it for modern, indie-rock consumption. This says something about the passion behind their music, and it’s this passion that rescues them from coming across as mere revivalists or imitators.
On their fifth album, Cervantine – named after the Don Quixote author from whom the band’s name is also taken – A Hawk And A Hacksaw have returned to their New Mexico home, bringing with them a cast of experts. The resulting album has all the fire and spontaneity of a hot and sweaty live performance paired with a sort of technical mastery that feels ripped from the classroom. It’s passionate, but also expertly crafted.
Cervantine never comes across as overly polished or inorganic – it was recorded on a two-track reel-to-reel, and its analogue warmth comes through beautifully. And while Trost and Barnes don’t seem concerned with making music fit for the masses, they have brought together disparate sounds from the wide expanses of the globe for an album that alternates between funereal sobriety (the simply stunning Lajtha Lassé) and boisterous exuberance (opener No Rest For The Wicked and the accordion-led At The Vulhural Negru).
Most jarringly, A Hawk And A Hacksaw have brought traditional Mexican horns into the mix, butting them against Balkan folk sounds to create the effect of hearing a globe-hopping roadshow from the outcasts and down-and-outs from a transatlantic tribe. This effect is most notable on Española Kolo, which inspired by the use of mariachi horns in European soap operas. But the pairing never feels forced.
Cervantine is the work of people who really, genuinely care about their music – it is not a mere repackaging of sounds for the sake of irony or quirkiness – and who seem determined to convince the listener that these sounds are very much worth hearing. It’s got the feel of a living document, or a last-ditch attempt to save an art form that belongs to the people from wasting away in the dusty basement of a Turkish museum somewhere.
That said, Trost and Barnes carry their torch quite aptly, and Cervantine does exactly what it needs to do. It’s certainly not for everyone, and even the most invested listener will likely leave the record feeling exhausted by its end, so frenzied and lively is its pace. It’s worth the trip, though, for anyone willing to hang on.