Aram Bajakian plays lead guitar in Lou Reed’s band (here’s a clip of him playing Waves of Fear – it’s hard to imagine a better showcase for his chops). Bajakian’s own project Kef has just put out a fascinatingly eclectic, completely original, often hauntingly beautiful album of guitar/violin/bass instrumentals, many of which imaginatively reinvent traditional Armenian melodies. There’s a raw, spontaneous feel here – for the most part, Bajakian doesn’t go for extensive multi-tracking. The album makes a good segue with cutting-edge Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored bands like Ansambl Mastika or A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Here Bajakian joins forces with Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass.
They open with a warmly fingerpicked acoustic vignette and then launch into some pyrotechnics: over a circular bass motif, Bajakian’s Neil Young-ish psychedelic sunspots give way to gritty no wave funk and some understatedly searing tremolo-picking. It’s the high point of the album, volume-wise. Laz Bar is a gypsy dance on the waves of the Mediterranean until the guitar gets funkier and bites down hard with a Ribot-ish blues solo as the violin swirls in and envelopes everything. The felicitously titled Sumlinian (Hubert Sumlin being one of the godfathers of funk) again works a circular melody, first carried by pizzicato violin before being turned over to the bass, guitar and then violin slashing their way through a Chicago southside of the mind.
Wroclaw, a Balkan-flavored rock tune comes together stately and wary out of a tricky intro, and eventually they swing it with a nice, matter-of-factly crescendoing violin solo, Bajakian following with some sweet Balkan blues – it’s the best song on the album. An upbeat Greek-flavored dance gets followed by a more pensive one, Swafford wailing over a brooding minor-key progression, Bajakian adding some teeth-gnashing yet terse Jeff Beck-style fills. From there they segue to some variations on the theme that eventually go absolutely haywire, back into a chorus that they hammer again and again, 80s no wave style. The album closes with a pensive, flamenco-tinted acoustic taqsim, a bass-and-guitar duet that sounds like a jam that worked out well enough to throw on the album, a wonderfully minimalist, mournful dirge and an equally captivating psychedelic piece that contrasts watery and spiky textures for a creepy vibe similar to the darkest stuff on Country Joe & the Fish’s first album. It’s out today on Tzadik.
Neutral Milk Hotel made some good music but nothing this amazing. A Hawk and a Hacksaw were originally a solo project of that band’s drummer Jeremy Barnes, which grew both in members and diversity as he immersed himself in Eastern European music, including a noteworthy collaboration with Hungarian group Hun Hangar Ensemble. Their new album Cervantine is characteristically intense and eclectic, something of a cross between the “new Balkan uproar” of Ansambl Mastika and the hypnotic dancefloor string-band grooves of Copal.
The epic masterpiece here is No Rest for the Wicked, a blistering suite of what are essentially variations on a fiery Balkan brass piece: accordion and strings picking it up, a long, suspense-building crescendo, a couple of wildly adrenalizing accordion solos and a graceful march out. It’s nothing short of breathtaking. They don’t try to outdo themselves after that, instead following with a lushly clanging, hypnotic bouzouki vamp. Espanola Kolo is a deliciously ominous gypsy tune, morphing from a somber march to wild ensemble passages with a particularly artful section with the brass and accordion going doublespeed against the stately grandeur of the strings. The title track follows, quieter and more brooding but similarly tuneful, featuring a raw, intense, tremolo-picked saz lute solo.
They take the popular gypsy standard Uskudar and give it a lush, understated majesty and a bracing violin solo that throws off all sorts of otherworldly overtones. Laszlo Lassu is a tone poems of sorts with an unexpectedly effective gospel flavor; after that, they pick up the pace with another crazed Balkan dance, shifting from the delirium of a hook that they run again and again that builds to one of the most darkly memorable choruses here. The album winds up with a gorgeously plaintive bouzouki song playfully titled The Loser. The band will be on West Coast tour starting in March (check their site for tour dates).You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2011 list at year’s end.