When I interviewed Calexico’s Joey Burns in the summer of 2008, I asked him which artists he’d most like to collaborate with. Without pause, Burns gave his answer: “A Hawk and a Hacksaw. They’re a band that I think is very, very interesting.” In fact, Calexico and A Hawk and a Hacksaw have collaborated, as recently as 2008’s Calgary Folk Music Festival. And it should come as no surprise that together the two groups make beautiful, history-laden music of a different time and space. But while Calexico summons its dry-desert sound from the wealth of history found in the Arizona/Mexico border, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s founding members — former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes (vocal, accordion, drums) and Heather Trost (violin) — have locked into the spiraled tapestries of Eastern European folk music by way of Albuquerque.
Stemming from a trip to Hungary that resulted in their latest EP, A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangar Ensemble, Barnes and Trost relocated to Budapest for a more permanent run to fully submerge themselves in the culture and lifestyle of Eastern Europe. They forged bonds with the members of Hun Hangar and began working with session players such as Kalman Balogh, who is described as “one of the worlds foremost gypsy cimbalom players.” The result is Delivrance. It is a collection of songs as much as it is a vast travelogue of the duo’s journeys through Budapest, Turkey, Israel, Transylvania, and so on. What’s most compelling about Delivrance is that the music isn’t so much indicative of one particular region. The album full of history, knowledge, and a love for the people Barnes and Trost met along the way.
The album opens with “Foni Tu Argile,” a Greek composition traditionally played on bouzouki. Barnes and Trost transform the number into a rousing, foot-stomping celebration in the minor key. Continuing in this vein, “Kertesz” begins with the rattling siren call of Balogh’s cimbalom and Barnes’s propulsive accordion before launching into a full on polka attack complete with Trost’s nimble violin playing. Trost’s own composition, “Vasalisa Carries a Flaming Skull Through the Forest,” is a standout, and not just because of its provocative name. Cimbalom, violin, and accordion wheeze and whir in disjointed harmony as Trost conducts a distinct sense of unease, almost to suggest that what may be even creepier than Vasalisa’s flaming skull is what may be lurking in the darkness behind her. It may be an upsetting image were the track — and the album as a whole — not such an engaging, joyous experience.