Dreaming across time and space as the sounds of a Romanian gypsy LP wafted from the speakers of his Albuquerque home, Jeremy Barnes wondered how it would be to take his accordion and his curiosity on a trip to the music’s home. After metamorphosing from a former Neutral Milk Hotelier to the founder of his own outfit, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Barnes began the task of marrying dream to reality. Balkan-infused albums followed as Barnes and violinist Heather Trost took to the motorways and bridle paths of Europe, including the dreamt-of Romania, eventually settling in Hungary. After tracing the roots and routes of his beloved gypsy music, Barnes realized that it had no home, or rather, that home is wherever you uncase your accordion, strap on your cowbell headband and drumstick, and make merry. And that might as well be in New Mexico, where, after all, the local brass rang with Czech influences.
Which brings us to Cervantine, an album made in Albuquerque but with its mind just as often on other places. It’s the first release on AHAAH’s weirdly-named L.M. Duplication label, an imprint that hopes to follow the lead of Folkways and Sublime Frequencies by bringing neglected “world” musics to greater audibility. Place is all over this album, but not necessarily any place we could go to outside of strapping on the headphones and tuning in. The brass and accordion veer between Mexico and the Balkans, the strings and occasional vocals hover between European and Middle-Eastern traditions, and the rhythms are from who knows where.
Opener “No Rest for the Wicked” is a wild gallop of a tune that finds Barnes and Trost being pursued across the plains by a hoard of mariachi gypsy bandits. Brief solace is found midway through, signaled by some plaintive accordion, but it’s not long before the chase is on again, all stomping drums and harassed horns. An exhilarating number, this should prove a live favorite if all the various forces can be summoned onstage. Ever the border-crossers, AHAAH use “Mana Thelo Enan Andra” to explore Greek and Turkish sounds. The track features siblings and Family Elan members Chris and Stephanie Hladowski on bouzouki and vocals respectively, while Issa Malluf provides rhythm on the doumbek. The involvement of the Hladowskis adds a connection to Northeast English freak folkery and improv and further emphasizes AHAAH’s expanding sonic network.
Sonic displacement, or placelessness, continues with “Española Kolo,” which brings a Slavic imagination of a New Mexico town, gypsy brass melting into mariachi dreams until, once more, we’ve lost our bearings. It’s debatable whether this represents music as a Universal Language, a notion Barnes seemingly subscribes to, but it’s far from being dubious fusion or global mish-mash. In short, it works. The title track, meanwhile, edges in on a quieter, more meditative vibe, Trost’s strings bringing dissonant alert and a drama that is subsequently justified by cartoonish brass. It’s shootout time in the desert and the Morricone clichés are played for full effect. As if to confirm the point while also making one about parallel worlds, David Herman’s video for “Cervantine” depicts a bunch of guys dressing up as knights to battle it out, old-Europe-style. The track’s maudlin predictability, one of very few disappointments on the album, is partially rescued by some frazzled string work midway through.
“Üsküdar” is one of those songs that’s so well-traveled it’s hard to pin it to any one location. That’s probably the point, given its inclusion on an album that exists in the impossible geography of a borderless dreamscape. Aching string-based instrumental “Lajtha Lassu” is strangely reminiscent of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, although, presumably the reference is to Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Lajtha László. The subtle but effective rise and fall of the piece, along with its teasing refusal to resolve, suggests, as with Bryars, a ceaseless haunting or the always unfinished task of mourning. It’s one of the most affecting pieces the band has recorded.
AHAAH play more spatial tricks on us with “At the Vultural Negru,” whose opening seems to place us on the outskirts of a rave. A sonic switch follows to reveal Barnes & co. playing a gypsy tune apparently named after a Romanian hotel or shopping mall. Closer “The Loser (Xeftilis)” leaves us floating in the Middle East somewhere, a final refusal to return. Barnes and Trost may be back home from their sojourn abroad, but their music is still out on the road somewhere.