Album Cover
A Hawk and a Hacksaw
A Hawk and a Hacksaw
November 04, 2003


I think the Elephant Six is my favorite entity ever. From this original group of four unassuming back-in-the-day Louisiana high-schoolers has spawned an extended family tree, full of varying genres and more wonderful, downright essential music than the mind can comprehend in one sitting. From sunny Brian Wilson-inspired pop to field recordings of Bulgarian folk music, they're an indispensable source of consistently amazing stuff.

And surprise surprise, the Elephant Six has done it again. Jeremy Barnes, member of the Gerbils and Neutral Milk Hotel, among others, leads this cross-bred supergroup of sorts, backed by Eric Harris and John Fernandes of the Olivia Tremor Control, Derek Almstead of Of Montreal, and Scott Spillane and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel fame; even the album's label, Cloud Recordings, is founded by Will Cullen Hart of the Circulatory System. And while elements of each of its founding groups are present, A Hawk and a Hacksaw is firmly and delightfully its own thing - saloon music of the Old West as approximated by current-day French instrumentalists, or the soundtrack to some kind of wonderful modern art circus.

And they just pull it off so well. There's not a trace of belabored irony or avant-garde self-indulgence; this album is start-to-end sincerity, and the players seem to be enjoying themselves thoroughly. The interest that these Elephant Sixers clearly have in the musical styles of other cultures and times allows them to craft strange, obscure styles into ceaselessly enjoyable and entertaining songs, full of hooks that you'll drive yourself insane trying to whistle.

A rooster crows as the first beams of the album appear over the horizon, and an eerie "Piano Phase" mantra starts the first track, "Maremaillette", until it is overwhelmed by a myriad of sunny backing instruments, or possibly only two. Throughout the album it's hard to tell exactly how many instruments are playing; behind the foreground is a constant background, and behind that are semi-constant subbackgrounds, almost like someone making noise next door and being accidentally picked up on the recording. This is especially the case on "A Hack and a Handsaw", a meandering mess of instruments and sounds combined into a more or less cohesive and linear tune. "Romceacsa" follows, and is possibly the highest high point of the album, with sprawling accordion and piano tunes, amazingly catchy either despite or because of their speed and complexity; this indeed applies to the majority of the album, but here the ratio of catchy to mind-boggling is at its most efficient.

"A Hard Row to Hoe" continues in this vein of fast-paced, complex accordion, while "All Along the Tide" and "Black Firs" redirect the album's flow into slower and more subdued compositions. "Cotton Woods" throws in mildly intoxicated-sounding vocals, giving the song the feel of a traditional village folk tune. "At Dusk" and "Quand le Son Devient Aigu, Jeter la Girafe a la Mer" accentuate complex piano, sounding less like village tavern songs and more like old-timey Western saloon ditties as composed by time-traveling Philip Glass.

"To Pine in Time" recalls the more experimental leanings of Neutral Milk Hotel, in the vein of "Marching Song" or Aeroplane's "Untitled". "It's not your feelings, guy," moans the title track in a touching little drop of character, which gets picked right back up again for a majestic and somewhat anticlimactic close, fading out to the closer, "With Our Thoughts We Make the World", a brief song that tries to get going but just kind of gives up and brings the album to a sort of slurred, staggering close as the party dissipates and the happy drunkards aim for home, leaving what sounds a whole lot like monkeys to clean up and shut off the lights.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw have released a startling and fascinating debut. It's everything one would expect from such a melting pot of Elephant Six alumni in that it's completely unexpected, unforseeable and unbelievable. This sort of thing just happens sometimes, and when it does, it should be treasured.

Noah Jackson

Track List

  1. Maremaillette
  2. A Hack and a Handsaw
  3. Romceacsa
  4. A Hard Row to Hoe
  5. All Along the Tide
  6. Black Firs
  7. Cotton Woods
  8. At Dusk
  9. Quand le Son Devient Aigu, Jeter la Girafe a la Mer
  10. A Kernel
  11. To Pine in Time
  12. A Hawk and a Hacksaw
  13. With Our Thoughts We Make the World