It?s safe to say that ?Heave the Gambrel Roof?, Steven R. Smith?s fourth album as Hala Strana, will be the best-smelling album of the year. At least the first vinyl pressing, which is limited to 250 copies and comes with a hand-cut and hand-sanded 12?x12? square of wood. Even for those who are going to listen to the regular version of the album, though, ?Heave the Gambrel Roof? offers more than enough to challenge their senses.
Steven R. Smith, the man behind Hala Strana, hardly needs an introduction here, having played in Thuja as well as having released under his own name. Earlier Hala Strana recordings saw Smith accompanied by Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse. On ?Heave the Gambrel Roof?, however, Loren Chasse is Smith?s only collaborator, and only appears on one single track.
As Hala Strana Steven R. Smith investigates the rich and mythically charged Eastern European folk tradition with impressive knowledge and utter seriousness. Using a dozen or more instruments, some of them self-built and a few so obscure that most people will have to consult the usual online sources to get an idea of what they look (let alone sound) like, Smith particularly explores traditional Albanian music in ?Heave the Gambrel Roof?. Five of the eleven tracks are cover versions or radical reworkings of Albanian traditionals. As usual with Smith, however, it?s hardly possible to tell originals from covers or interpretations.
The stunning ?Wedding of the Blind? is one of the latter, and it sounds as if the musical accompaniment of these particular Albanian weddings was leaning heavily towards improvised dronescapes that supply an ambient background to lofty guitar strumming, a wailing hurdy gurdy and the screeching spike fiddle (I confess to guessing some of the instruments here).
For an even more visual experience, head on to ?Rat lines? where a Wolfmanglerish string sound is layered atop menacing locomotive breaths. The dynamics of the machine and the desolate strings lament the lost worlds of Jewish shtetl culture and of Eastern Europe in the days of Austria-Hungary. A world in which people were travelling for days just to have their passports stamped.
Joseph Roth, Johannes Bobrowski and Franz Kafka are only a few of numerous German authors who portrayed that pre-modern Eastern European culture which would be wiped out by World War I and eventually by Nazi Germany. It doesn?t come as a surprise, then, that the sense of an ending is prevalent in Hala Strana?s beautiful dirges, in his obsession with original instruments and with musical heritage. Hence the cover illustration, an early modern woodcut which shows a city that seems to be chained to the sea. Hence ?The Loss of What We Keep?, the album?s final track title, which echoes two prominent lines from Goethe?s notorious ?Faust?: ?Was du ererbt von deinen V?tern hast / Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.? (?What you have inherited from your fathers / That you must acquire if you want to own it.? ? my translation, as if you couldn?t tell). Pursuing a Faustian enterprise indeed, Smith has consciously set out to fight the ?loss of what we keep?. By heavily reworking his findings, however, he doesn?t act as a taxidermist but reinvents and in fact reinvigorates a tradition on the verge of extinction.
It will be difficult to find a string of songs that is more touching, musically stunning and emotionally complex than ?Wedding of the Blind?, ?Rat Lines? and the album?s glorious title track. With ?Heave the Gambrel Roof?, Steven R. Smith has developed his signature style even further. More importantly, though, he has also added a new thematic depth to his thick description of Eastern European folk tradition. 9/10 -- Jan-Arne Sohns (22 May, 2007)