Jeremy Barnes, who is still perhaps best known as the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, has not allowed the grass to grow beneath his feet during that outfit's continuing period of inactivity. After working with his post-NMH group Bablicon, Barnes has seen spot duty with Bright Eyes, the Gerbils, and Broadcast, and for the past few years has apparently been living life as something of an itinerant minstrel.
Over the course of his journeys-- in the past year alone he's lived in England, Prague, and New Mexico-- Barnes has accumulated fragments of ethnic folk dialects from seemingly every region on the atlas, and now as ringleader of A Hawk and a Hacksaw he ambitiously attempts to fuse these varied tongues into a unified, coherent vocabulary. Darkness at Noon, the second album from AHAAH, is a frenetic, dizzying pastiche of Eastern European folk, klezmer, mariachi, Appalachian fiddle music, and evocative jazz. And though Barnes and company fail to bring this bewildering array of streams into confluence, the album contains enough flashes of such melodic invention and daredevil instrumentation that armchair travelers can't help but be drawn to the group's exotic scrapbook.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw's eponymous 2004 debut was essentially a Barnes solo act, but on Darkness at Noon he receives valuable assistance from such talented vets as trumpeter Dan Clucas and tuba player Mark Weaver, and the album even includes unspecified contributions from NMH's Jeff Mangum. This expanded group, and Clucas' work in particular, helps infuse tracks like the opening "Laughter in the Dark" and "Europa" with a languorous, Old World beauty that at times even bears reflections of Sketches of Spain.
Generally speaking, the album tends to be most satisfying on its slower, more contemplative tracks, such as "The Water Under the Moon", a wistful, melodic ballad featuring violin, accordion and barroom tack piano, or "Our Lady of the Vlatva" which contains some lovely, Robert Wyatt-like vocalizing. Less beguiling are the handful of blustery up-tempo gypsy hybrids like "The Moon Under Water" or "Wicky Pocky", each of which are too frantically played and self-consciously eclectic to likely appeal to anyone who dances with less agility than Topol.
Between these occasional lapses in subtlety, however, Darkness at Noon amply illustrates Barnes' keen ear for songcraft and talent for judicious cross-cultural pilfering, and offers enough evidence to generate the speculative hope that A Hawk and a Hacksaw might someday prove able to blend its multiplicity of influences into a more cohesive alloy stamped with its own distinctive, individualized imprint.
It's often the case that making up a biography for an artist turns out to be much more rewarding than the truth. To that end, I'm going to start writing this review before I do the obligatory background research on the mystery that is Colleen, frightened as I am to be let down by the actual story behind this group/band/woman/entity. Everyone Alive Wants Answers is one of those albums that has me quick-drawing on the "unlike anything I've heard" cliché, a curious album that catches my pop-oriented fancy even though it's clearly more Dominique or Richard-San territory. The cue cards read "glacial" and "ambient," but I'd rather make up my own interpretation.
The opening, self-titled track is, appropriately, a thesis statement of the record's approach, cutting in abruptly with a ragged-edged loop of what sounds like a harp played with a sharp rock. Loops like these are the foundation of Colleen's unusual sound, though to call them loops is pretty much a technical overstatement; more accurately, they'd be called skips. If Oval made music by meticulously scratching compact discs, Colleen's compositions appear to manifest themselves out of vinyl scratches, the repetitions coming less from ProTools Ctrl+V-ing than from a stylus sentenced to trace the same groove forever.
Many tracks add instrumentation of some sort over these backdrops, like the title song, which features soloing that sounds like an octopus tuning a piano in double time. Others add layers of malfunctioning records to build atmosphere like a slowcore DJ, "Ritournelle" weaving ellipses of soft vibraphone, eternally swelling strings, and dust particle crackles into an Elfman-esque score that's equal parts creepy and fantastical. Colleen's attic toybox seems bottomless: "One Night and It's Gone" has a "bassline" crafted from different tones of static hiss, "Nice and Simple" features a chorus of music boxes, while "Long Live Mice in the Metro" incorporates backwards tweaking and heavily treated effects without sacrificing organic warmth.
Chances are, there are modern compositional precedents for all of these sounds-- hell, some of them have modern Björk-asitional precedents even I've heard before. And while Everyone Alive Wants Answers is most definitely top-heavy, hitting its peak with the first two songs and losing focus as the rough-edged loops make fewer appearances, at 39 minutes it ends before one's iPod finger gets itchy. Thirteen tracks wrapped in a reassuring blanket of fuzz, it's the perfect headphones soundtrack to a bus ride through ultraviolet city snow.
Turns out Colleen is, in fact, a she, though it's a she confusingly named Cecile, and she's from Paris, which explains some of the exoticism. Instruments reported include glockenspiel, cello, Melodica, and music box, with nary an octopus to be seen. The truth is only a slight disappointment (at least it's not another unshaven guy with a Powerbook and a fiber-optic light show) but a letdown nonetheless, though it's no fair fight pitting actual biography against my commute-time imaginings in this post-liner notes age-- an age that suits Everyone Alive Wants Answers, one of those rare, truly evocative abstract pieces of art where every observer takes away their own interpretation, and is left feeling a little more special about their experience as a result.
Added by thecpr on June 30, 2005