As the old saying goes, it is possible to count the number of Hungarian musicians on one hand. Or at least I can. For a country not exactly blessed with crossover artists, please raise a glass for The Unbending Trees, a trio that has enjoyed unlikely hit status in their native country.
Lead singer and main songwriter Kristof Hajós has been involved in various music projects prior to forming The Unbending Trees, and was curiously a novice friar in his teens. With bass player Peter Hary and classical pianist Balázs Havasi completing the line-up, the trio’s morose, delicate music has been picked up by MTV in Hungary, with the track You Are A Lover propelling itself into the national conscience.
The Hungarians may have latched onto something here. With the UK economy sliding down the pan and unemployment on the rise, many people are seeking refuge in music to soundtrack these depressing times. And boy, is Chemically Happy (Is The New Sad) a downer. Never has an album title been more appropriate, and Hajos sprinkles his little nuggets of Prozac wisdom throughout to provide, if proof were needed, further evidence of his gloomy state of mind.
Picked up via MySpace by Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl for UK release on his Strange Feeling label, Chemically Happy (Is The New Sad) could yet prove to be an unlikely indie hit in this country. “I’m sad, ain’t I?” declaims Hajos on the opening You Are A Lover, setting the tone for the whole album. Havasi’s stately and spartan piano is the only instrument heard for the first two tracks, lending a suitably downbeat musical backdrop to Hajós’ half-spoken vocals.
Message ushers in a barely audible rhythm section and mournful strings, and it is at this point that the similarities to early period Leonard Cohen become most striking. Unfortunately, there is little of Cohen’s trademark humour on show here, and the litany of ills inflicting Hajós (his personal life seems to be an unrelenting series of failed relationships and depressive episodes) does begin to lose impact the deeper into the album you plunge.
Everybody’s Lover, The First Day and Overture benefit from a more expansive approach, with the first two tracks featuring gorgeous string backings to complement Havasi’s almost jaunty piano, and the latter introducing the always reliable Tracey Thorn in a haunting duet with Hajós.
Fans of The Unbending Trees will point to the next two tracks, Messiah and Slow Down, as the epitome of Hajos’ artistic vision. More discerning listeners may baulk at the narcissistic depths to which he descends, with the former an oddly blasé ode to Prozac and the latter featuring the lines “I wish I could disconnect my life/I wish I could stop my hands from shaking/I wish I could hide behind the blind”. Depression is a notoriously difficult illness to translate into art, and Hajos does not always convince.
By the final two tracks, Guys That Died and a cover of the Hungarian suicide song Gloomy Sunday, my patience was wearing thin. All of which is very frustrating when you factor in the superb playing of Havasi throughout the album. Hats off to him, he is the true star of the piece.