a hawk and a hacksaw

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I’m going to change the blog’s focus for a little while. Partly to avoid Good Hodgkins syndrome and partly because if something is the best of 2006, it deserves a little more time than three paragraphs, and partly because I’m a writer, and I need to write about different stuff sometimes. So instead of having a wide, enormous focus like I’ve had since June (and will have again), I’m going to focus the rest of the year on the … best of the year. Hopefully it will turn out all right.

I literally spent weeks agonizing over my best of 2006 list. Is this normal? Doubtful. But I hate making lists; that is, I prefer to look at other peoples’ lists and yell, “What? Where’s so-and-so! Loser!” So now you get to yell at my list. I got my top three all right; then I had to keep going, and rearranging, and relistening … well. I actually have a top 20 now. So today we’re going to look at numbers twenty through sixteen in my list. You can click on the album for a buy link, and there will be a sample mp3 in the blue square. Keep in mind, I firmly believe that you could not go amiss buying these albums (or at least picking through them on iTunes if you’re not an album buyer).

Scott H. Biram
Graveyard Shift
Bloodshot Records
Long Fingernail

In spite of some of the skeevier elements of this album, the rest of it remains impossible not to listen to. Biram’s growly lyrics conjure up those old religious days of hellfire and brimstone, when Jesus was a narrow-eyed disciplinarian, leaning over you to make sure you did your lessons right. If you did — salvation! If not, well … Biram’s there to console you.

The strongest songs on the album are at the beginning and end of the album: the middle descends into good-old-boyness and songs about trucks; too country for me. But everything starts off with a bang: “Been Down Too Long” is a great opener, with a perfect summary of Biram’s aesthetic: Well, all I want in this creation / is a good-lovin’ woman and a long vacation. “Only Jesus” is the impetus for the paragraph above, and “Long Fingernail” brings up the Devil to torment a man with a broken heart. All in all, if you ever need someone to scream with you someday, there is no one better than Biram.

Nouvelle Vague
Bande A Part
The Perfect Kiss Records
Sweet & Tender Hooligan (live)

All I ever hear about this album is how it’s not as good as the first one. Lucky me, then — I never heard the first one. Also, I’m so fond of this idea that they can put out five more albums and I’ll buy into them all. How is it that a French band gets the idea to take “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and add bossa nova to it, and then sing it so sweetly that it’s even creepier than the original? With bells and running footsteps and that heartbeat of a bass? How did that happen? It’s not a fluke, people; it’s artistry.

The strength of the covers are also the band’s weakness — if you don’t like the songs they picked, you’re not going to like the cover either. For instance, I can’t stand “Pride (In the name of love)” so a cover is so uninteresting. But if you do like the songs, the covers aren’t just given minimal makeover. “Heart of Glass” is stripped of that annoying original voice (heh! sacrilege!) and made danceable; “Human Fly” becomes punk bossa nova. Sure, maybe this is the “same old schtick” as the first album, but who else is doing this, and doing it so well? Come on now.

A Hawk and A Hacksaw
The Way the Wind Blows
The Leaf Label
Song for Joseph

In this paragraph will be my only mention of “Gulag Orkestar.” I was a big fan of it, and then I got hold of “The Way the Wind Blows.” And I realized two things — the two albums are inextricable, but since I could only pick one, “The Way” is better. When you put them side-by-side (and I did — I told you I agonized about this list), Condon sounds like an insipid shadow of Fanfare Ciocarlia. His album is put together better, in that faux-concert format, but musically, A Hawk has him beat hands-down.

Which doesn’t really work anyway, because Condon plays trumpet on “The Way,” so like I said, inextricable. This is a great album, period. It has a joyful, festival feel to it, and it’s obviously a labor of love by expert musicians. My only complaint is that it sometimes makes you feel like you’re in a restaurant and some dude is playing accordion over in the corner and it just … goes on … forever. I often have to listen to the album in two sittings because I guess there’s only so much Balkan orchestra a girl can stand.

Ray LaMontagne
Till the Sun Turns Black
RCA Records
Three More Days

Ray LaMontagne’s best asset is his genuinely soulful sound. Everything he sings sounds like he’s cutting out a little chunk of his heart and handing it to you. Even in the “guy-with-guitar” genre, which is super-soulful, LaMontagne manages to ratchet it up a bit. He’s got a great backing band, with piano and violin just a perfect complement. Everything works together very well.

What keeps him out of the top ten is that all the songs are really really really similar. They tend to run into one another until it’s all one big long song — a format I’m not fond of. Even “Thick As A Brick” changed up its style once in awhile. And there’s almost nothing left of the desperate howling that charged up “Trouble” or “Burn.” It’s like he’s playing a whole album underwater. Nevertheless, tracks like “Empty” or “Three More Days,” even played underwater, still blow away the competition.

Vienna Teng
Dreaming Through the Noise
Zoe Records
Blue Caravan

I have such a soft spot for Teng. She’s young and sometimes silly, and I don’t even know if she counts as indie, but she’s such a great songwriter and singer and piano player. She’s beautiful and talented and if you don’t like her, you’re just a sad sad person. “Dreaming” is an excellent release. I’ve also heard the this-is-not-as-good-as- [insert-album-name-here] criticism from devoted listeners, but I can’t understand why.

It’s the same type of material she’s released before — “1 bd/1 ba” is about finding an apartment and “I Don’t Feel So Well” is apparently about grammar. Everything is semi-autobiographical, and as listeners followed Teng through her early twenties, now they can follow her into the stretching period that goes with growing up. Teng thinks, probably harder than any of us did, about turning 40, about having children, about hurricanes and gay marriage and how much to give to your spouse without losing yourself. Standout tracks: “City Hall,” “Whatever You Want,” “Recessional.”

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A Hawk and A Hacksaw

One thing that really interests me about the postmodern age is the equalizing of information. In the Victorian and Modernist eras, information was classified and labeled and privileged; Latin was better than English and civilized folks were better than natives. But now we have the Internet, which is the most equalizing of all tools. Information is laid out linearly with barely any privilege at all. [eta: I wrote “in a linearly,” for which mangled phrase I expect the English Teachers Ass’n to come for me with cats-o-nine-tails] No one fact has a God-given right to be better than another fact. It’s amazing.

Of course while we have no discernable qualifiication of information, we do have to deal with the quantity of it. When Ryan from Muzzle of Bees interviewed Will Sheff, Sheff made the point that the sheer quantity of recent music (and music-related items, such as crappy concert videos) creates a state of overload: “after awhile,” he says, “all information kind of starts to feel equally valueless.” It’s an insightful point; when the designation of “a great band” includes everything, then it also includes nothing — it has become a meaningless term.

But there’s hope for us all. The upside of postmodernism is the ability to buck canon and create our own personal privileged information. The internet then becomes our greatest facilitator — we can elevate the most obscure facts to the highest status, leaving behind anything we don’t consider interesting or worthy. Oh, sure, it’s selfish, and critics warn that it will leave us all alone one day in a dark room, staring at the flickering screen and typing feverishly to the three other people in the world who like, say, orange plastic Snoopy lunchboxes from 1983. But maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing, if it makes those four people happy.

By listening to A Hawk and A Handsaw, you are privileging the very interesting music of Romania. I grew up in Europe, but never did get a chance to visit the Balkans, so it’s all new to me. Romanian music seems to be quite the thing lately, thanks to Zach Condon of Beirut, but A Hawk has actually been around longer than he has. Condon contributes his horn-playing to the latest album, “The Way the Wind Blows,” and the Roma band Fanfara Ciocârlia also backs up with their rockin’ tuba on songs like “Gadje Sirba.”

If you like Beirut — or if you like the underpinnings of Beirut but not Condon’s singing — you will be interested in A Hawk; I have not heard all their songs, but all the ones I have heard are completely instrumental (which makes it very hard to understand why iTunes has labeled them as “explicit.” I’d ignore that). If you like contintental European music or the tuba, you will be interested in A Hawk (or in Fanfara Ciocârlia; they are award-winning artists). If you don’t choose to privilege this information, why, no loss: there’s always more out there to choose from.

A Hawk and A Hacksaw: Site | Myspace | Label (the Leaf Label)

Fanfara Ciocârlia: Site

[These tracks have been removed. You can contact me if you’d like a copy.]

A Hawk and A Hacksaw – Gadje Sirba
A Hawk and A Hacksaw – A Black & White Rainbow
A Hawk and A Hacksaw – God Bless the Ottoman Empire