A Hawk and a Hacksaw: Darkness at Noon

The declamatory trumpet solo and accordion that initiate Darkness at Noon in “Laughter In The Dark” signify immediately that ex-Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes' latest A Hawk and a Hacksaw excursion will be exotic and eclectic, a suspicion reinforced when delicate harp plucks and a sombre chant (its lyrics apparently derived from a George Bush speech) appear shortly thereafter. In fact, the album's unusual sound can be traced to the minor Eastern European scales and modalities that so much of the music is founded upon. It doesn't surprise, then, to learn that the album's genesis included a year-long travelogue Barnes undertook through England, Prague, and New Mexico where he collected instruments and absorbed musical ethnographies. Consequently, Darkness at Noon's stylistic range encompasses gypsy, klezmer, mariachi, and American folk, with Barnes's own accordion, piano and drum contributions abetted by trumpeter Dan Clucas, tuba player Mark Weaver, Heather Trost (vocals, violin, piano), Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), and Barnes' own mother on harp.

While he recorded the follow-up to last year's eponymous debut in two locations, Leicester and the United States, the project began in Prague where he conceptually mapped out the entire recording. Though the album is rooted in Eastern European instrumentation and compositional styles, Barnes thoroughly exploits their potential contrasts. He includes, on the one hand, relatively delicate pieces like the ponderous “The Water Under The Moon,” with its sweetly mournful violin cry, and “Our Lady Of The Vlatva” where Barnes adds a Lennon-flavoured vocal to a sparse piano arrangement. Affecting too is “Portlandtown,” an American anti-war folk song by Derroll Adams (and often performed by Woody Guthrie) which closes the album elegiac ally when a choir recounts the joys and tragedies that marked one person's life. In stark contrast to these restrained outings, a loud and frenzied klezmer attack drives “Wicky Pocky” while “The Moon Under Water” features the aggressive wail of blaring horns. Darkness at Noon also wends its exotic way through a pounding dirge (“A Black And White Rainbow”), dramatically sinuous klezmer (“Pastelka On The Train”), and an hypnotic waltz (“For Slavoj,” named after Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek). A liberal dispersal of field elements (creakings, voices, rain patter) adds a contemporary dimension, but the album embraces more deeply traditional, centuries-old sounds and styles. Interestingly, Barnes' A Hawk and a Hacksaw calls to mind Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra in the breadth of its musical explorations and its embrace of long-rooted musical traditions though it eschews entirely the impassioned political dimension that's so fundamental to Haden's LMO work.

May 2005