This could go down as the year gypsy-rock broke. Beirut (a.k.a. Zach Condon) blasted onto the scene with his critically beloved debut, Gulag Orkestar. DeVotchka upped its profile by providing most of the music for the year’s breakout indie film, Little Miss Sunshine. And A Hawk and a Hacksaw (whose two main members, Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, appear with Condon on the Beirut album) has released another stellar song collection, The Way the Wind Blows.
The record opens with sleigh bells jangling. Barnes (who has a bit of genius-by-proxy — he helped Jeff Mangum shape the sound of Neutral Milk Hotel) expresses the wish, “May you live every day of your life.” He doesn’t end the sentence with “well” or “happily,” and the sentiment comes off even better without that kind of clarification. From there, the band winds through eleven mostly happy Balkan pop ditties full of accordion, horns, strings and, sticking to Barnes’s wish, abundant life. Said opener “In the River” morphs, after a slinky accordion solo, into what sounds like a traditional klezmer band running through Smetana’s “The Moldau,” with Barnes chanting, “Roll these bones/ Over the stones.”
Lyrics aren’t the album’s calling card. Many songs — the title track, “Fernando’s Giampari,” “Waltz for Strings and Tuba,” “Oporto,” “Gadje Sirba,” and “Salt Water” — all add up to contain zero words. When Barnes does sing, his tales are often vague. “God Bless the Ottoman Empire” has aimless admonitions for people to come together, and their set to guitar playing fans of Django Reinhardt would appreciate. “The Sparrow,” with its zippy trumpets, seems to be a variation on the old religious idea that if God cares for tiny birds, he must care for us big lunks as well.
As Dave Gahan famously sang, “Words are very unnecessary.” It’s instrumentation that rules here. Nothing sung on the album is nearly as interesting as the accordion and horn section dueling it out on “Fernando’s Giampari,” trading meticulously taut passages back and forth. Most of the album has this feel, as if it’s processional music for some Eastern European dictator. When Barnes tones down the pomp and circumstance, things can be downright pretty. “Salt Water” is defined by a repeating melody, its ringing pianos straight out of a Debussy composition.
The band is smart to keep things short; outside of traditional Jewish enclaves, too much of this type of music would become grating. But, when just over the half-hour mark, the sound and “may you live” line from the first track circle back on closer “There Is a River in Galisteo,” it is perfect closure to a near-perfect album.