If the Brothers Grimm had written indie folk music rather than fairy tales, Albuquerque duo A Hawk And A Hacksaw‘s music is probably what they would have sounded like. Hailing from New Mexico but taking their influences from Eastern Europe, Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost’s fifth album sounds like a wander through the fairgrounds of an Angela Carter novel.
With Slovakian arthouse cinema soundtracks behind them, a name paraphrased from Hamlet and collaborations with Hungarian folkies the Hun Hangar Ensemble on their CV, they’re the anti-Gogol Bordello, making intelligent music that walks through Balkan forests collecting influences like fine spices, with only an accordion and a violin for company.
Sparing use of vocals – on I Am Not A Gambling Man, for instance – helps such tracks to stand out, while the juxtaposition with instrumentals helps create the feeling that we’re watching a story unfold, albeit one to which only they know the plot.
As a result, the music is versatile enough to hold its own as a collection of separate tracks even without (many) words. Turkiye’s rousing dance rhythms and the more gentle melodies of The Man Who Sold His Beard in particular stand out from the crowd. The latter joins the wonderfully titled Vasilis Carries A Flaming Skull Though The Forest in tempting us to write our own fairytales around the soundtrack they provide.
Plundering Eastern Europe for folk melodies isn’t especially new but A Hawk And A Hacksaw do it so intelligently that you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the UK leg of their current world tour takes in Gateshead’s Baltic art gallery and the Norwich Arts Centre amidst the music venues.
Bands such as this duo, Florence And The Machine and Bat For Lashes are gradually breaking down the barriers between performance art and folk noise, a trend arguably started by Patrick Wolf, whose aesthetic if not their sound you can draw comparisons to. They’re eclectic enough to have been taken under the wing of the Glasgow Jazz Festival and US indie fest SXSW as well as being welcomed by the folk crowd and they wouldn’t be out of place in the Royal Festival Halls and Barbicans of this world either.
Perhaps their success lies in their dedication to the folk traditions that have inspired them. Moving to Budapest for their previous album, recorded with the Hun Hangar Ensemble, they have immersed themselves in Balkan music rather than listening to it from a distance, overlaying it with all the experiences they have gained along the way.
The result is multi-layered, traditional yet experimental, innocent and knowing all at once, looking back to their roots while taking a step forward. You can’t ask for much more than that.